J.R. Ward is a force in Paranormal Romance and Romance in general (as Jessica Bird), having won multiple RITAs and creating a fandom that is staggering in size and devotion. The Black Dagger Brotherhood came out in 2005, one of the foundational PNR series that “started it all” in the wake of 9/11, and like some of the other “blockbuster” series that emerged during that time, it’s still going. With twenty books, the most recent of which came out this April, and two spin-off series, the Black Dagger Brotherhood has established itself as a franchise with staying power. This review will survey BDB in general – at least the books I’ve read thus far – in an attempt to understand why it is so beloved and a cornerstone of the PNR genre.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
STARS: 3/5 ✶
STARS: 3/5 ✶
STARS: 4/5 ✶
STARS: 5/5 ✶
There is a lot to unpack about the Black Dagger Brotherhood; it’s difficult to know where to start. The best place, perhaps, is through comparison. Imagine if you took The Black Company by Glen Cook, and you turned the concept of their hyper-masculine band of brothers-in-arms, moved it to the modern world, made them vampires, and added a heaping dose of romance. Presto! You have the Black Dagger Brotherhood. They are an elite force of military-grade vampires, bred for protecting their race, bonded into brotherhood by hundreds of years of devotion to their King and one another, but each having their own unique story, traits, and abilities.
One of the things I found fascinating about this series is its take on vampires. In terms of tropes, it has the standard vampire-slayer conflict, except that the world-building around that trope is wildly unexpected. In this world, vampires are a species distinct from humans that are born, not sired. Their progenitor is an immortal being known as the Scribe Virgin who is at war with another immortal known as the Omega and is determined to put an end to the vampire race. Furthermore, vampires don’t kill or feed on humans; only the blood of their own race can nourish them. So, this is not a battle of humans against vampires, but of the legions of “lessers” created by the Omega to exterminate the vampires set in the human world. Like I said, fascinating take.
In my opinion, this series falls squarely under the Dark Fantasy subgenre (from a Speculative Fiction perspective) for multiple reasons. Yes, it is incredibly violent, but in some respects that’s simply a “surface” darkness. What I find truly dark, because it is troubling on a deeper level (and, in fact, flat out creepy) are the “lessers.” These beings are created by the Omega by removing their soul both metaphorically and physically in exchange for immortality – their hearts are literally excised from their bodies and stored in jars – to gain their powers. These beings are straight up sociopaths, even before they are turned, and it is described in detail on page. One of the unique things about this series is that it is multi-POV. The reader gets to read the events from the lessers POV, and it is disturbing. They have no conscience. I’ll be honest, those sections are hardest reads for me. It is purposeful though in that the author is presenting a clear contrast between the necessary violence of the brotherhood and the pure acts of evil transgressed by the lessers.
To further establish the dark tone, the world itself is incredibly bleak. The series takes place in a fictional large city in upstate New York where drugs, alcohol, prostitution, sex, addiction, murder, and what is essentially gang warfare are all taking place, explicitly. Characters are tortured. Characters you like are shot and killed point blank. Heroes are borderline alcoholics, and one almost turned to heroin to quell his emotional turmoil. Couples do get their HEAs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things turn out well for the other characters. This series comes with a LOT of content warnings. I’m not going to list them here. But as with any Grimdark or Dark Fantasy series, if readers have particular triggers, you should definitely search out the CWs and make sure you understand them going in (e.g. book 3 contains explicit descriptions of the MMC being raped). It is a brutal world that, combined with the multiple POVs and the plot, deliver a truly Dark Urban Fantasy experience.
The first book is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but I think that’s more endemic of the fact that it’s a first book in a sweeping Urban Fantasy series than it is of this series in particular. A significant amount of time is spent explaining and exploring the world. So much so that Romance fans will probably find the romance in book one a touch thin. It definitely has a fated mates element to it as well, and unfortunately under-developed insta-love, which was one of the reasons I gave the first book only 3 stars. But that quickly turns around in book 2, where the romance and characters are developed in significantly more detail. By books 3 and 4, the character and relationship arcs are far more fleshed out and fully developed as you can see reflected in my ratings (4 and 5, respectively). I’ll be honest, had I not made a commitment to read 3-4 books per series for this Book Bingo project, I probably would not have read on in this series. But I am SO glad that I did, because book 1 is not representative of what you’ll find as you progress through this crazy world, and by the time I got to book 4, it was a 5-star read for me.
This series rides a line between Urban Fantasy Romance and Paranormal Romance given the multiple POVs and structure. Yes, there is a single HEA per book, but the foundations of other relationships, both romantic and otherwise, exist to a far greater extent in each book than I’ve seen in other series, in part due to the multi POVs. Also, the series-spanning plot arcs of the war between the brotherhood and the lessers definitely takes a front seat in equal measure to the romance. In my estimate, that tips the scales for me to categorize this as Urban Fantasy Romance (at least as far as I have read).
This series is not without its faults. So many fans have commented on the names, and I’d be remiss to not bring it up. Yes, the names of the brothers are ridiculous – Phury, Rhage, Tohrment, Rehvenge, Vishous – but honestly, as I continued to read on in the series, it didn’t stand out as much to me because it meshed with the world-building. The vampires speak an Old Language, and so it’s not only their names but also other proper nouns and rituals that have these odd spellings. In fact, there is a glossary of terms at the beginning of each book! I know, I know – ridiculous, right? And it really was at first. But by book 4, I didn’t even notice it. It just fit.
What actually garnered more eye-rolling for me was the early-2000’s references to pop-culture. They’re driving around in Escalades listening to rap music (and referring to actual rappers and songs) and wearing designer suits (which are also called out specifically). That *did* start to grate, but at the same time was somewhat entertaining as it was like taking a time machine back to my graduate school days, a little window back in time. All this to say, just know, going in, these things exist and may pull you out of the story.
Probably the most problematic part of these books is that they are *highly* gendered and the descriptions of LGBTQ+ characters are less than great. If the presence of these two things is a non-starter for you, I would not recommend this series.
The Fated Mates podcast did an episode on BDB, and although I wished they had gone into some of the issues I’ve described above in greater detail, one of the things they did comment on that I thought hit the mark is that they called this series “propulsive.” This description is spot on. Despite the drawbacks I enumerated above, the plotting and its pacing *propel* you to keep reading. Even though the books were graphic and a lot to take at once, I could not stop reading. I read books 2 through 4 in 6 days!
I will most likely read on in the series, specifically to reach the books that focus on the characters whose stories I’d like to see completed, but I am going to take a short break to recover a bit from this dark and brutal world. Who would I recommend this series to? Oof – that’s a tough call. Probably fans of Dark Fantasy or Grimdark that are looking for romance in their stories. This series is not for the faint of heart, and so I would make sure that anyone I recommend this to know what they’re getting into. Good luck – this series is a doozy!