Captain Henry Mortimer is good at his job. He and his team approach assets — individuals with psionic powers capable of equal parts great usefulness and great devastation — and bring them peacefully to the Compound where they will be … well, dealt with. He assumes they will be trained and taught how to use their gifts the right way. The ones who want to will be put to work, and those who don’t will be let go. Or, something like that. Until, following a pair of suspicious suicides, Henry finds out the truth.
People like Bastian are called assets because they’re not legally people. They’re things. Property. Able to be experimented upon, used, disposed of without due process or sympathy. Instead of being a part of the Compound staff, Bastian is taken to a cell in handcuffs. Instead of choosing to work for the Compound, he’s blackmailed with the lives of those he cares about. Instead of being trained how to use his powers, he’s bled dry, with his blood, tissue, and other samples taken away for experiments without his permission. He’s tortured, caged, and enslaved.
Last year Bastian escaped, and for a glorious year he was free. But thanks to Henry’s unique ability to suppress psionic powers, Bastian is once more back in Major Valentine’s grasp, and this time she has no intention of letting him go free again. Empaths are rare. The last one was born over 200 years ago, but sometime in the past year another empath has appeared, and this one is dead set on murder. Valentine has the idea to fight fire with fire. Let Bastian and John Doe face one another down. May the stronger empath win.
Dark Empathy is the first book in the Compound series, which features a variety of powerful psychics, from empaths to fire starters, trackers, plant talkers, and people who can use electricity. It also features mentions of medical experimentation and torture, as well as gaslighting, mental and emotional manipulation, and suicidal ideation. If any of these cause distress, then I would suggest finding another book.
Henry is unnaturally calm. Stoic, unflappable, and built along in the old-school super hero archetype of Good. He does what he does because it’s the Right thing to do. And if that means breaking the rules to save people, or to find out more about the organization he’s working for, so be it. It also means taking orders to protect the people he works with. He’s spent so long doing what he’s told that the idea of refusing an order is hard. But when he meets Bastian, Henry finds something worth — for once — actually putting up a fight. Saving Bastian means putting other people at risk, but that’s a price Henry’s willing to pay. Because Bastian has never had someone at his side willing to fight for him until Henry.
Bastian grew up in the Compound. As an empath, he felt every emotion of all the people around him, and it hurt. It almost drove him mad. When Valentine helped him learn to harness his gift, he was grateful. When he was told that the blood he was giving was to help other assets like him, he agreed. Until they took too much, until they decided to see how much an empath could take. How much pain, his own and that of others. How far could they push before he pushed back, and what did his pushing back feel like? How could they defend against him, weaken him, control him? Henry is the only one whose never asked those questions. When the two of them have their first kiss, Henry doesn’t think to ask if Bastian is using his gift to make Henry feel something. Because Henry already knows he’s in love.
I found it hard to feel any emotional investment in these characters — which is ironic consider it’s about empaths. Perhaps it was because I didn’t feel as though I was invited to share the story with the characters. Rather than having introspective moments where the characters felt things, I was instead reading about events. And not events as they happened to the characters, but instead events that had already taken place; sad events, sure, but since neither Bastian nor Henry seemed too broken up about them, they didn’t feel all that sad, which left me to feel much the same. Indifferent at best. When Henry is being blackmailed into doing what he’s told, we’re with Bastian’s point of view. When Bastian is back in the hands of the scientist who tortured him, we’re with Henry, reading a book.
The story is told almost from a more visual standpoint. Characters talk and act, but very rarely do they seem to feel anything. And when they do have feelings, it’s all tell, don’t show: I ‘m angry. I’m sad. I’m upset. I’m in love. There’s never any dwelling on the emotion, examining it, or even introspective moments to show how the character arrived there. The writing is decent and the pacing moves along at a good clip, and the plot and world building are enough to keep me interested enough to read the next book in the series. However, the characters are so flat that I don’t think this is a series I will ever reread. Still, if you’re looking for government conspiracies, humans with powers, and very moral characters, there are things to enjoy in this book.