Devouring Dark, the latest from Alan Baxter by way of Grey Matter Press, is a solid cross-genre affair, entertainingly blending supernatural horror and crime.
Matt McLeod has a darkness within him. Quite literally as it turns out, as he can summon this darkness and use it to kill those who have done wrong. In the book's opening chapter, we get a delicious taste of McLeod's peculiar brand of vigilante justice as he stalks and kills a pedophile in a London alley. In a stroke of coincidence that promises to not bode well for Matt, his exploits are caught on the cell phone camera of a hoodlum who works for local mobster Vince Stratton. Stratton thinks he can use Matt as an assassin, but Matt's none too keen on this idea. Add into the mix a nurse, Amy, who shares similar talents as Matt, and soon enough you're off to the races in a frenetic game of cat-and-mouse.
There's a lot of neat layers to Devouring Dark, and I had a lot of fun reading it, particularly as Matt works at digging his way out from under Stratton's thumb. Baxter builds an interesting web to connect his characters, although there's an awful lot here that hinges on coincidence. Thankfully, the story moves fast enough, the characters are involving enough, and the challenges befalling them are sufficiently difficult enough, that some of the overly lucky (or perhaps unlucky is more apt) strikes lining them all up just so aren't entirely noticeable or distracting on first pass.
Baxter has a great knack at using his character's voices to great effect, alternating chapters between their varied points of view, giving readers a nice array of perspective to view the story through. Although Matt is arguably the lead protagonist, it's Amy Cavendish who really shines and provides a few bright spots throughout the narrative. Amy's gift is similar to Matt's curse, but her role as a nurse, as well as her understanding of her power, allows her to use the darkness in a strikingly different way, but one that's true to her humanity.
Amy is also a conduit for Baxter, allowing him to speak up a bit on issues of palliative care and the ignominy of death. Baxter, Amy, and I find ourselves in full agreement on the issue of how we treat our sick and dying relatives from a medical perspective versus the ease with which we can end a pet's suffering. Despite our medical and scientific advancement, medically assisted suicide for human beings is still deeply taboo, but I'm more than sympathetic to the author's viewpoint, having had similar thoughts and discussions myself after losing loved ones to prolonged and painful illnesses.
Although it's a crime story first and foremost, Baxter does manage to fit in a vital message, one that I'd hope more people would give conscious thought and action toward, and I appreciate his willingness to broach it in both Devouring Dark and the bonus short story, "Shadows of the Lonely Dead," included at book's end. Mind you, Devouring Dark is hardly a treatise on the pros of assisted suicide, so if you're one of those who fret about politics in their fiction, worry not. Such moments are small in the sum of this book, but there are a few worthwhile, and dare I say vital, scenes that provide some necessary food for thought.
[Note: This review is based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.]
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