Review: ‘Dark Prophecy: A Level 26 Thriller Featuring Steve Dark’

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker returns with the second digi-novel in his bestselling Level 26 series.


Title: Dark Prophecy: A Level 26 Thriller Featuring Steve Dark
Author: Anthony E Zuiker with Duane Swierczynski
Release Date: October 14, 2010
Publisher: Dutton
ISBN: 978-0-525-95185-8
Price: $26.95


Dark Prophecy: A Level 26 Thriller Featuring Steve Dark is the the follow up to CSI creator Anthony E Zuiker’s first “digi-novel” Level 26: Dark Origins. The book also marks Zuiker’s second collaboration with Duane Swierczynski. Together, the pair have created a dynamic addition to the Level 26 series that takes fans deeper into the mind of protagonist Steve Dark (Daniel Buran). As with Dark Origins, Dark Prophecy features the Special Circumstances (Special Circs) division of the federal government, which tracks down the world’s most twisted serial killers. When Dark Prophecy gets underway, five years have passed since the end of the first novel. Steve Dark has left Special Circs, and this time there’s no going back. He has a five-year-old daughter to take care of, but he’s having trouble adjusting to his new life as a father and adjunct college professor after spending more than twenty years chasing monsters.

Little Sibby, named after Dark’s late wife, is staying with her grandparents while Dark tries to get things together. He can’t bring her home until the house is completely safe, and the house won’t be safe until he locates every single danger and eradicates it. Locks aren’t enough. A security system isn’t enough. Video surveillance covering every inch of the house isn’t enough. No matter what he does, Dark can’t shake the feeling that there’s another way to get in, another way to put his family in danger. There are monsters outside always looking for a way in—Dark would know. As much as he wants to bring Sibby home and have a normal life, he feels like he’s stuck between the man he used to be and the man he knows he needs to be for his daughter.

While Dark tries to get his life together, Special Circs deals with business as usual. A new torture-murderer has emerged. Dark begins to follow the case, and eventually he finds himself drawn back into the world he left behind. Special Circs is determined to keep the former agent far away from their investigation. He left, and he’s not welcome to come back whenever he gets an itch to rejoin the hunt. After the killer strikes a second time, taking out a member of the Special Circs team itself, Dark is approached by a stranger with a tantalizing proposition.

The woman is Lisa Graysmith. Her younger sister was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and Dark caught the killer while he was still working for Special Circs. Graysmith offers Dark unlimited resources to track down serial killers without answering to anyone—not even the government. Dark initially rejects Graysmith’s offer, but it’s not long before he finds that he can’t resist the urge. After the third attack, Dark realizes the killer’s penchant for staging victims in elaborate poses is meant to replicate tarot cards.

Dark throws himself into the investigation. He and Special Circs are ultimately working toward a common goal, but the two are anything but allies. Dark is searching for the killer while avoiding his old colleagues, and Special Circs is looking for the killer while trying to keep Dark at a distance. Somewhere in the middle of this struggle, a journalist named Johnny Knack becomes a thorn in the side of every investigator working the case. He breaks the “Tarot Card Killer” story on his website and seeks fame and eventual fortune by insinuating himself into the investigation.

Dark remains a compelling character. After so many years chasing monsters, he wonders how far he’s fallen into the dark side. Former mentor Tom Riggins (Michael Ironside) is faced with the same question as he chases the Tarot Card Killer while trying to keep an eye on Dark. The relationship that was developed in the first book is practically nonexistent in Dark Prophecy. Dark is out of Special Circs, and Riggins will do whatever it takes to keep him out—and he’s not afraid to go after his former protégé if he ever becomes the sort of monster he once hunted. Dark’s new benefactor, Lisa Graysmith, is an interesting addition to the book’s cast. Her motivations are believable, but there’s enough mystery surrounding the character to leave fans wondering where she really stands.

One of the most important characters in Dark Prophecy is barely in the novel. Tarot card reader Hilda (Justine Bateman) is introduced to readers in the cyber bridges. Like Dark Origins, Dark Prophecy includes code words interspersed throughout the book that lead fans to Level26.com to watch short video segments relating to the novel. In the first Level 26 novel, the bridges were short supplementary videos that brought a scene from the book to life or showed something that was only alluded to in the book itself. The bridges only made sense within the context of the book. This time around, the bridges add together to form a one-hour short film. Dark visits Hilda’s tarot card shop for insight into the killer’s motivations, and she does a reading for him. Each bridge relates to one tarot card and provides background information about Steve Dark. They show the choices and circumstances that made him who he is and led him to this place in his life.

I’m ambivalent about the slight supernatural element that was part of Dark’s tarot card reading. The order of the cards seemed like more than a mere coincidence. It felt slightly out of place, but I liked the way it worked as an element of the novel’s plot. It was ultimately necessary with the way the story was written.

The cyber bridges feature a few moments of stiff acting and some clumsy dialogue. In one bridge, Dark has an emotional outburst. The effect is ruined slightly by the dialogue, especially when the character utters the line “I cry dry tears” twice. Despite a few quibbles, the bridges are very effective overall. Buran really brings the damaged, tortured character of Steve Dark to life, and he does a good job portraying Dark’s hesitation, rage, despair and understanding over the course of the film. The interplay between Buran and Bateman works well during the tarot reading. Bateman’s dialogue includes quite a bit of exposition as she explains the meaning behind each card, but it doesn’t feel excessive. The flashbacks featuring Ironside are particularly effective at showing the history between Dark and Riggins.

Although the bridges take place over the course of one night about halfway through the book, characters from later in the story make an appearance during one of the bridges. This creates a continuity issue, but it doesn’t matter much. In the end, including the characters is a nice touch for fans who read (or are reading) the book. Any discrepancies between the book and the bridges are more forgivable with this new format than they were in the first book. The soundtrack, written by CSI: New York composer Bill Brown, adds a nice atmosphere to the short film, and the tarot cards themselves are gorgeous.

The short film format of the cyber bridges offers multiple options for experiencing the story. Readers could enjoy the book from cover to cover and then go back to watch the bridges, or they could stop to watch the bridge each time the novel prompts them with a code. The bridges can also be watched separately as a film, which would give potential readers an introduction to the world and the characters. The film sets up who Steve Dark is, and it summarizes some key plot points from the first Level 26 novel. It’s not hard to imagine a new group of fans starting with the short film and segueing into the novels.

The cyber bridges can stand alone as a short film, but they work best alongside the novel. The book makes the most sense when you have the information and insight offered by the bridges. You need both elements to experience the whole story. The digi-novel concept is still evolving, but the cyber bridges in Dark Prophecy are a major improvement over the first entry in the Level 26 series.

Ultimately, Dark Prophecy is very different from its predecessor. In Dark Origins, the characters were familiar with the killer, Sqweegel, and they were concentrated on tracking him down. The novel also spent a great deal of time focusing on Sqweegel and showing his actions. This time around, the plot revolves around Steve Dark himself. Instead of focusing on a team searching for a known nemesis, Dark Prophecy focuses on one man searching for himself while simultaneously searching for a killer. The character of Sqweegel was central to the first book, and he remains in Dark Prophecy as a background presence. His role in Steve’s life leading up to the present is a major part of the story told in the cyber bridges, but he isn’t a significant part of the plot this time around.

I enjoyed the increased focus on Dark’s character, and the references to Sqweegel in book two offer a few answers and even more questions. Dark Prophecy sets up a lot of possibilities for future books. There are new character dynamics to be explored. Lisa Graysmith in particular is an interesting character with unplumbed depths. However, I hope we haven’t seen the last of the dynamics established in book one. Riggins considered Dark a surrogate son in the first book, and I’m curious about where they stand after the events of Dark Prophecy. I was drawn to Constance Brielle and her interaction with Dark and Riggins during Dark Origins, but the setup of book two doesn’t offer many chances to expand on those relationships. She and Riggins still work alongside each other in Special Circs, but Constance only shares a few scenes with Dark in Dark Prophecy. That’s enough to offer hints about the romantic relationship that developed—and ended—during the five year time jump, but there’s still a lot more to be explored.

As with the first Level 26 novel, Dark Prophecy offers some fun moments for CSI fans. The lab and precinct sets from CSI: New York serve as the setting for several flashbacks during the cyber bridges, and Mac Taylor’s (Gary Sinise) office even makes an appearance. Fans can also catch a glimpse of Zuiker himself as “Mr Johnson,” and the CSI creator’s oldest son, Dawson Zuiker, plays young Steve Dark in the bridges.

Fans can pick up Dark Prophecy without reading Dark Origins, but knowledge of the first book makes for a richer reading experience. Dark Prophecy takes the reader on a thrilling journey into the world of Steve Dark as he tracks down monsters and fights his own inner demons. The series and the digi-novel concept have lot of potential, and I’m looking forward to future Level 26 titles. It feels like Steve Dark’s adventures are just beginning.


Rachel Trongo is the news writer for CSI Files.

Rachel Trongo

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