As a young teen, Father Castor de Leon’s family was brutally slaughtered by a dangerous pack of werewolf shifters. He and his sister were taken in by the Sanguine Church; ever since, Castor has dedicated every fiber of his being to finding and killing the monsters that murdered his family. In the meantime, he trains new recruits how to wield the power gifted to them through transfusions of vampire and shifter blood. He also hunts those same beasts. When Castor stumbles upon one shifter who seems to outclass every other shifter Castor has met, he is eager to put the beast to work supplying the Church with healing shifter blood. When he discovers a way to force the beast to shift back into its human form, Castor is stunned to discover the pathetic man seems as disgusted with his shifter self as Castor is. Unthinkable, but useful for the Church and useful for Castor.
Eddie never asked to become a shifter. It happened when he and his family were ambushed on a camping trip. He doesn’t remember much about that horrific night, just that, in his new bloodlust, he was actually the one responsible for murdering his own family. Getting caught by the hunters of the Sanguine Church does give Eddie hope. Not for his redemption or an end to his curse, but of penance for his unforgivable sins. Eddie works incredibly hard to master the nearly untamable beast within him, gladly giving his blood. Eventually, he even vows his loyalty to the Church, in part because he is truly grateful they have given his miserable life purpose. But no small part of Eddie also craves recognition from none other than Castor. Eddie knows there is no hope of ever earning Castor’s respect, let alone any more familiar or tender feelings. But that doesn’t stop Eddie from throwing himself into his new role as helper and, later, hunter for the Church, just for the slim chance Castor may see Eddie as something other than a beast.
The power dynamic ought to be crystal clear between Castor and Eddie; Castor is coldly aloof and Eddie tries to strangle his unrequited feelings. When Castor is tasked with training Eddie to become a hunter, the two eventually come to a grudging peace. That peace grows into something more when Eddie learns that he is more than just a wolf shifter, he’s an omega. When Castor suffers an attack, their relationship explodes in a whole new way. The changes have Castor reevaluating his feelings towards Eddie, while Eddie struggles to understand what it means to be an omega without a pack.
Dark Cravings is the first book in Joel Abernathy’s series Hunters of the Church. It takes place in the present and features strong religious imagery and themes. The focus on the church acting as an organization to fight paranormal beings, notably vampires and wolf shifters, kept the tone from being anything but preachy. In addition to the Sanguine Church, there is another faction of the same group that splintered off long ago. They’re called the Order and serve as a secondary villain after the wolf shifters that were responsible for turning Eddie and for attacking Castor’s family.
For me, the highlight of the book was Eddie’s journey from beast to human to hunter. From the moment he sets eyes on Castor, even in his wolfy form, he recognizes someone he wants to form a bond with. Eddie’s immediate reaction went a long way towards making me accept his instant attraction. That is, Eddie craved Castor’s attention, approval, and eventually his affection. But from the moment Eddie realized he had these desires, he also viciously rejected the idea he was worthy of them and accepted that Castor basically wrote Eddie off as a monster. Having the two main characters at odds like this made for a terrific slow burn and I enjoyed how they both questioned their feelings and actions almost every step of the way. Or, well…Eddie always held Castor in high regard. Even when Castor engaged Eddie out of spite or mere duty, Eddie was grateful for the attention. It was a special kind of bittersweetness to watch Eddie cherish even those small kindnesses, and even outright discipline for the simple fact that it was Castor giving them. Castor’s perception and reactions to Eddie slowly change over the course of the story, but he never loses his frenemy-esque quality. Even as Castor realizes his feelings about and towards Eddie are slowly morphing, he tries to equivocate and eschew what they mean. He has a lot more growing to do, but seems to resist it as long as possible.
The shifter lore in the story was a fun surprise, as well. At first, Castor and the others are absolutely convinced that Eddie is an extremely powerful shifter. His size and the fact that, in wolf form, he goes around on two legs are meant to convey that Eddie was special. At first, everyone assumed he was an alpha. As Eddie starts going out on hunts with Castor and other members of the Sanguine Church, however, he encounters other wolf shifters who have a particular reaction to Eddie. They know him for the omega that he is and react like their kind do — try to take ownership. Eddie’s status as an omega added a huge element of danger to his living with the members of the Sanguine Church. He sees these people as his own and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect them. Suffice to say, it leads to a terrific angst where Eddie loves his new home so much that he is willing to sacrifice himself to save it. That scene is one of my only real gripes about the plot as the whole “sacrifice myself to save my home” comes so late in the game and gets resolved so quickly, it loses some significance.
All in all, this was an exciting introduction to this world of vampires, wolf shifters, and the people who use and hunt them. In Dark Cravings, there are no conundrums about whether the paranormal beings are or can be good…they’re all categorically understood to be bad. For the purposes of this book, that worked well. I would be interested to know if that holds true in future installments. If you’re a fan of unrequited love stories, slow burns, paranormal romances, and opposites attract, then I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this story.