Rating: 3 stars
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Now that Axel and his crack team of hackers and Navy Seals have put a stop to the so-called Dark Empire—an extreme sex trafficking scheme where captives are forced to engage in utterly depraved acts to satisfy the highest bidders—it’s time to reckon with the fall out. Duncan, Axel’s fiancé and final (albeit forced and genetically enhanced) star of the Dark Empire has to come to terms with what has happened and what it means for him and his boyfriend. Just because the cameras have stopped rolling doesn’t mean the experiments that gave him an insatiable lust for rough sex and a monster phallus for that purpose are going away. In fact, it means Duncan and Axel have to consider how to satisfy Duncan’s needs without harming anyone.
What’s worse, the Dark Empire runs deeper and wider than Duncan and Axel knew. Wealthy bidders still expect a show and until Duncan can convince his former tormentor, Dr. Malcom, to create an antidote to curb Duncan’s lust, it turns out turning off the cameras and going back to live as usual will be off the table for Duncan…maybe permanently. Even worse, Duncan and the others discover exactly why Dr. Malcom ever got involved in sex trafficking and, as a victim of sexual abuse himself, builds a convincing rationale for his despicable actions.
This is book two in Meraki P. Dark’s Dark Empire series. It picks up pretty much exactly where the first book leaves off—the immediate aftermath following Axel and friends/associates breaking into the Dark Empire. The Dark Empire serves as the laboratory for human experiments in physical and sexual enhancement, a prison for the nonconsenting test subjects, and a stage for when these subjects are forced to perform for wealthy donors. Content warnings abound for nonconsensual sex, human trafficking, and PTSD at the very least.
Personally, I was interested in continuing this series only because book one ended before Duncan and Axel could have any sort of “lovers reunited” type arc and address the impact that Duncan’s forced participation in the Dark Empire will have on his relationship with/to Axel. Unfortunately for me, the focus of the second book feels very centered on the changing dynamic between Duncan and Dr. Malcom (the medical doctor in charge of performing the enhancements).
I will eschew spoilers about why Dr. Malcom ever gets/stays involved in Dark Empire, but suffice to say, this forms a significant arc in the story. Although there are scenes between Duncan and Axel peppered throughout the book, they feel flat. Axel is just sort of…there, offering his support to Duncan and makes the token effort to try to continue some form of physical intimacy with Duncan. On the other hand, Duncan seems to react in ways that indicate his growing acceptance of being sexually involved with more than one person. Having multiple sexual partners is not an issue, but I just couldn’t understand why Duncan’s shifting perspectives are not something he ever seems to discuss with his, you know, fiancé. The result seems to turn Axel into more of a bystander than a meaningful character, despite his relationship with Duncan. Similarly, Duncan seems to be contemplating a lot regarding his tolerance/acceptance of what has been done to him and what it makes him feel, but he never seems to talk about it to anyone and especially not his Axel.
The basic premise of the book was simple: Duncan and the others involved in the ring have to continue the Dark Empire until Dr. Malcom can reverse the effects of the modifications he forced on Duncan and the other subjects. That part was pretty straightforward. However, I felt inundated with minutiae about myriad supporting characters. At least the ones with names and bigger roles from the first book were easy to keep track of: Tim, the man who usually slaked Duncan’s lust in book one; Tiny, a bouncer who used to work with Duncan; and Zero, a hacker friend of Axel’s. But there seemed to be a parade of other characters that I had a hard time keeping straight and didn’t seem to have a meaningful role to play in the story. The other trafficked victims, for example, still seem to be at the arena. Other people who worked for Dr. Malcom and an unknown number of wealthy patrons to Dark Empire all crop up here and there. Without having consistent names (for example, the man who paid for Duncan’s experiments is referred to as variously as “the sponsor,” “GPH,” and “gape”), it made it difficult to keep track of who these side characters are and how they fit into the world.
One thing that stands out in my mind about this installment is the language. This may be my training as a translator kicking into overdrive here, but I found many passages that had unclear wording. For example, “Duncan stared at the empty chair that the evil doctor had just sat in and morphed into a human being.” In the context of this sentence, this could mean that either Duncan or the doctor morphs into a human being. Both men can be construed as “monsters” because of the dehumanizing experiences they have experienced (by force, by choice, or a combo of both) and are trying to get their humanity back. I think this distinction is important if we’re going to have any sort of redemption arc for one or both characters. There were also a few wonky collocations, like finding a needle in a “stack of needles” instead of a “haystack” or describing Duncan and Axel as a “yucky romantic couple” rather than a “saccharine sweet” couple. Overall, the author’s voice felt rather more casual vis-a-vis the subject matter—not necessarily a problem in dialogue, but I felt it was less polished during the regular prose as well.
Overall, I was disappointed that the Axel/Duncan dynamic again does not get addressed in a more direct, or at least on-page, manner. The shift in focus to Dr. Malcom was an interesting exploration into what drives the man, even if the conceit there is extremely cheeseball. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll probably be interested in seeing how everything shifts in book two. Personally, however, I thought the dearth of dialogue/exposition concerning the relationships Duncan has with Axel and Dr. Malcom on page was a major shortcoming.