A year ago, Oscar’s partner was convicted of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to fourteen months in prison. Since then, Oscar has slowly started to get his life back on track. He’s been promoted to the head of the English department at work; he has his own flat in the southeast of England; and he has the freedom to see whomever he wants to see. Now, Oscar and his best friend have decided to hit the clubs to celebrate the end of the school year. As soon as they get to the bar, Oscar meets a stunning man named Cal who checks all the right boxes. After the dirtiest dance, followed by the raunchiest ride share, Oscar is standing in a Cal’s home getting the orgasm of his life. The connection he feels to this virtual stranger is as immediate as it is strong…until Cal utters two little words that trigger Oscar’s panic response. Humiliated and defeated, Oscar longs to escape…and is stunned to find out Cal’s first concern isn’t his own sexual gratification, but Oscar’s safety. What’s more, Cal wants to see Oscar again. But Oscar can’t quite believe someone as amazing as Cal would seriously be into someone like him. Oscar’s just glad he got his jollies and now wants to forget everything. It’s easier said than done, as Oscar realizes Cal’s left a huge impression on him despite being virtual strangers.
The son of Lucifer and known as the butcher of the ninth circle, Cal has never cared for humans beyond the physical pleasure they can provide for a night. But something undeniable and irresistible draws him to a short, mouthy teacher having a night out in Cal’s brother’s club. There isn’t a spark of attraction so much as a four-alarm fire of unbridled lust…and blindingly tender protectiveness. Cal is mystified by his own reaction to a mere human, but is helpless in the face of this all-consuming desire. When Oscar has a panic attack mid-coitus, Cal does everything in his considerable power to help Oscar through it. Even if that means letting him go at the end of the night. After all, Oscar may be leaving Cal’s home, but Cal can call upon his hellish powers to watch over the human. And if he happened to give Owen his demonic mark as a means of protection, so be it.
As unlikely as Cal falling in love is, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The entire supernatural world can readily see Oscar bears Cal’s mark…and when Cal’s father suddenly starts machinations to bring his wayward sons home from the mortal plane, that mark becomes a target. Cal is determined to keep Oscar safe, but it won’t be easy. Not when Cal’s got one more brother trapped in hell, one who may be the pawn in their father’s game to get all the princes of hell back over the River Styx.
Devil’s Mark is the first book in the Reckless Damned series by Lark Taylor. It clocks in at some three hundred pages, but it whizzed by for me. The story unfolds in chapters that switch between Oscar and Cal as narrator. At the very beginning, we see each man in his own environment–Oscar at school and Cal in his bookshop–dealing with events typical to their teaching career and demonic career respectively. Oscar’s introduction also started immediately laying groundwork for how he was coping with being a domestic violence survivor. Content warning: Oscar had been subjected to emotional manipulation/abuse and escalating physical violence, the latter of which is not detailed on page, but the former echoes in Oscar’s own thoughts/words at times. There was enough information to understand how profoundly changed Oscar was without going into the specifics (which come out much later). I thought Taylor did a marvelous job consistently depicting Oscar’s reaction to the trauma, while also showing him starting to cope with it (rather than just exist with it). To that end, I thought it was marvelous that Cal is proactive in learning how to help a domestic violence survivor come through a panic attack. To me, it really demonstrated that he was invested in Oscar, that the story was investing in Cal rather than just using his good looks, money, and supernatural charm to make Oscar’s trauma response vanish.
The first third or so of the book was just tantalizingly good. I loved the idea of a demon being one of the main characters/love interests. One thing I really enjoyed about this contrivance is that once a demon has bestowed his mark (as Cal did), it irrevocably ties the demon to whoever bears the mark. Bonus points for the fact that if the recipient does not accept the mark, then the demon dies when the recipient does. It added a little level of excitement to the story. Sure, it was clear Cal and Oscar were going to be extremely star-crossed lovers and their whole affair began with some intense instalove, but Cal didn’t want that death-pact aspect of the bond to affect Oscar’s decision, so Oscar was blissfully unaware that he literally could make the decision over whether high-demon Cal would live or die. And speaking of instalove, I was absolutely thrilled about how Cal literally feels a pull towards Oscar before he ever sets eyes on the man. It just added a layer to the instalove that goes beyond the typical “so hot, can’t help but love him” into something more.
As the story progresses, I think the human/demon or mark giver/mark recipient dynamic settles to a simmer. It’s mentioned pretty often, but usually takes a backseat to the wild hot love affair Oscar and Cal develop. First, their physical relationship was delightfully hot. Both men seemed to be very in tune with what they wanted for themselves and from/with their partner. Second, I thought their frequent forays between the sheets showed growth for both characters. For Oscar, he was learning to let himself feel and act on romantic love again. For Cal, he was learning to put another being’s needs above his own (which he gets super comfortable with super fast, actually). That said, after the first umpteen rounds of sex, it started to feel like the growth/closeness started to wear a bit thin and we were getting sex for sex’s sake, which put a tiny damper on my enjoyment of the characters.
The plot itself has a couple of different threads. Of course, there is the romance between Oscar and Cal. Then there is Oscar working through his past trauma, which later becomes front-and-center aspect of the plot. There is also Cal’s mark and whether Oscar will accept it. Plus, one of Cal’s brothers basically trapped in hell. I think each of these is woven fairly well into the fabric of the story. They didn’t seem as tightly knit as I would have liked. For example, I wasn’t sure how exactly that one brother got stuck in hell beyond he made a couple of unbreakable promises that balanced/canceled each other out in ways that forced him to stay in hell. Then there is Oscar’s ex, who acts as a bogeyman throughout the story. However, when he finally makes an appearance on page, the drama/angst his appearance causes gets resolved almost immediately. I thought it was a bit too much to go to the effort to have the ex appear and then be almost immediately cut from the story. That said, the overall organization of these elements and their development in the story was mostly clear and easy to follow.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in a fresh take on theological themes with a very light exploration of the concept of hell. The story is brimming with a hot relationship between to fated, star-crossed lovers and has the unique quality of being able to use sex as a way to bring those characters closer together. If you’re looking for a steamy melodrama with interesting characters and a happy ending (with the promise of future installments featuring other characters that appear in this book) with a side of righteous demonic violence against bad guys, then I think you’ll really enjoy Devil’s Mark.