Jun 17 2009 4:45pm

Review: Demon’s Lexicon

“The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his sword under the sink.” How could you not pick up a book that starts like that?

The book in question is Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, which occupies a special place in my library, right next to Lorna Doone by Richard Blackmore. The connection is a solely personal one, but they are the only two novels I’ve read that mention Tiverton, a small town in England, where I grew up.

Admittedly, that’s not why I grabbed Demon’s Lexicon as soon as I could, which is significantly more fun to read than Lorna Doone. I got hooked on Sarah Rees Brennan’s blog when friends who were into the Harry Potter fandom recommended it to me. This is what I learned from her wonderful “stumbling towards publication” posts:

Step 1. Have crazy adventures throughout England and Ireland.
Step 2. Accost people, including mechanics, roommates and literary agents, wide-eyed, with an adorable Irish accent while hideously sleep deprived.
Step 3. Gather a group of amazing YA fantasy authors together in an Irish castle and frolic.

I was hugely excited to get her first book, the beginning of a trilogy, which came out on June 2nd. In retrospect I didn’t actually stop to learn details of the book I was hyping to all my friends. Things I knew before from her blog: There was a sixteen-year-old boy named Nick and his older brother Alan; Nick worked as a mechanic; there were demons; also possibly magicians. When I finally got my hands on it, I was a little leery of the very bright cover. The emo-hair, the pout and the obviously magic necklace didn’t give me confidence. Neither that, nor the back cover copy which is equally dramatic, gives the slightest sense of how very charming and sympathetic these very screwed-up characters can be. Brennan has now posted the cover art from each country as she receives it and I significantly prefer almost every other design.

From the beginning I fell madly in love—not with either brother individually, but with Nick and Alan as a team. Their relationship is the strongest part of the book and Brennan, obviously working to her strengths here, weaves it into the plot incredibly neatly. The book jumps straight into the conflict, so the characters and their relationships become obvious—painfully so in some situations—in a hurry. While I was distracted by the action I almost accidentally formed a great picture of this highly dysfunctional duo and their insane mother.

Brennan’s very first lines start to build a world that catches you off guard, almost indistinguishable from ours except that certain people know demons exist. The demons are so desperate to leave their plane of existence and enter ours that they’ll seduce, possess and destroy humans in the process. There are also magicians who use and abuse the demons—sacrificing people along the way—and innocent bystanders who often get caught in the fray. In the first group are Alan and Nick, their crazy mother who screams if Nick comes near her and an entire Goblin Market support-network of magician haters. In the latter category fall Mae and Jamie, a girl Alan has his eye on and her recently demon-marked brother, among others.

But now I’m about to enter the realm of spoilers. So if you haven’t read it and don’t like spoilers, stop here and go get it! I can sum the rest of the review up very briefly: if you like urban fantasy at all, if you like smart, funny writing and really good twists, you will like this.

This is a story of a family in hiding, constantly on the run from magicians who are hunting them down to regain an amulet their mother stole. The characters are in crisis mode a majority of the time, which shapes them. Nick is an immediately endearing character, though I suspect in reality he would be an unmitigated asshole. He’s strong, fights demon ravens and a shape-changed magicians within the first couple pages, is sarcastic, stubbornly not-scared and absolutely emotionally stunted. Alan has a permanently injured leg, a calmer temperament and a constant hope that his younger brother will one day emote something other than anger. The tension builds between the brothers as Alan’s needs to put down roots and have a more normal and social existence, including girls, conflicts pretty directly with their life and safety.

Alan’s crush, Mae, recruits Alan and Nick to help her brother Jamie who has been marked by a demon for possession. While trying to protect the more naive siblings, Alan gets marked as well. Nick’s fear for his brother brings the four to his last resort—the fascinating Goblin Market, where protection and knowledge can be found and bought and where talented dancers, like Nick, can call demons without magicians. Brennan’s delicate world building throughout the book really comes into its own during the Goblin Market which added interesting fantastical dimensions to the setting that I hope to see explored more. The book also subtly starts a conversation about the ethics of self-definition here a little as we begin to wonder what separates the Goblin Marketers who use magical things but claim to hate magic from so-called evil magicians.

In contrast the realism of Nick’s first days in a new place, at a new school felt painfully familiar and gave me a sense of how alien he is. His cold, almost inhuman reactions to strangers highlights the intense, possessive emotions he feels for Alan and the complete trust he places in his brother. When Nick discovers Alan has been hiding a photograph of a strange girl, it floors him. He plays gumshoe as he traces the girl and in the process he realizes that Alan has been hiding huge portions of his life—and family—from Nick. Since Nick’s moral system is solely based on what his father and Alan would expect from him, the dramatic shift in the way he views their relationship affects everything he does.

Demon’s Lexicon would not necessarily hold up as a stand-alone book, though it would still be a lovely read. It had a nicely defined plot but it definitely felt like the set-up for the bigger story line of the trilogy. All the subplots slowly came together at the end of the book into a reveal that I hadn’t even vaguely suspected. Not actually guessing the end was incredibly strange and exciting. If you figure it out, then wow. But I suspect that most of you, like me, will have an idea that’s pretty damn close but definitively no cigar. With my 20/20 hindsight, I can see significant foreshadowing woven together to make it if not obvious then a logical progression, but while I was reading it was a devastating and awesome development.

Many of the things I’d been skeptical about suddenly made perfect sense and I got to feel smart for noticing that things were slightly off. Unfortunately the same was not true of every aspect of the book. I did occasionally feel, for example, that Mae was too desirable. Sure she was messed up and confused, but there were moments where she rang false for me. Without any previous training she dances for the demons with Nick, a supposedly challenging task that takes years to master. Both brothers find her attractive, which I never did, though I did appreciate the added tension in Alan and Nick’s relationship. She felt like the odd character out in the foursome. Perhaps the gender differences make it almost inevitable but the rest are all so delightfully flawed that she seems not quite as three-dimensional. Similarly, while I love that Alan and Nick’s relationship is so integral to the plot, brotherly love saving the day is almost too pat. My instinct is to recoil from the too-neat solutions. Their relationship and the plot are saved for me, though, by the unresolved tensions and ambiguity within not just the boys individually, but their relationship, which they have to completely redefine as Nick begins to understand who and what he is. The ending feels as though the first crash of a storm has blown over and I can only hope that they have time to start picking up the pieces before things come to a head again.

Because I want everyone to read this book right now so we can start discussing the exciting ending (I arbitrarily declare the comments a spoiler-zone) I have an extra copy of the book to give away to the first person who mentions in a comment that he or she wants it. Then email me your snail mail address at supertailz at gmail dot com.

2. hapax
I don't need it because I already have it.

I loved this book with an insane passion. I talk it up everywhere. I want to hug it and adopt it and knit it warm little book booties.

The characters are individually wonderful (I share your reserve about Mae, but I suspect that's just because she isn't *quite* as awesome as the rest and also because we haven't learned as much about her), but as you say, it is the relationships between them that really shine.

When can we talk about the ending? Other than saying it broke my heart and lifted my soul and left me in slack-jawed wonder?
Nina Lourie
3. supertailz
@1 I got your email! I'll try and get the book in the mail tomorrow.

@2 We can talk about the ending RIGHT NOW. (This is why I made the comments a spoiler-zone. I neeeeeed to talk about this ending.) Did you see it coming at all? I really thought that Nick was going to be a magician, not a DEMON HIMSELF. Oh god the mother. Oh god the father thing. And killing the magicians to free Alex and Jamie! And and and...what did you think?? Did the zooming across london thing work for you? I think one of the things that worked best for me was the subtle hints about the relationship between Nick and the two demons throughout the book and how that all came to a head. I can not not not wait to find out how they all interact in the next book.
4. hapax
I did NOT see that twist coming, although I was quite sure about Nick's father, and pretty close to the motivations of his mother. Of course, it was the best sort of surprise: instead of OMGWTFBBQ it was "Well, of COURSE! Why didn't I see that earlier?" I mean, there was the eyes, and the winking demon in the asylum, and the whole crossing-water problem...

I thought that the flight across London was perfectly in character for Nick -- when he's threatened, he fights; when he's confused and afraid, he runs. But he always runs HOME eventually. And "home" is Alan.

I didn't think it was a pat "brotherly love saves the day," at all. There was nothing sentimental about it. Alan fully expected to DOOM the world for Nick's sake. And Nick didn't not destroy the world to make Alan happy; he chose not to destroy the world because he wanted go home and eat a bowl of cereal with Alan. That is love I can believe in. The absolute love between the two brothers is one of the most inspiring things about this book, because it is true and it is real and is essential to who they are.

(But yes, I do ship Nick and oh, whatsername, the female demon. And Jamie and Gerald, a little. We may not find out until the third book, though.)
Paul Howard
5. DrakBibliophile
By the way, if people are looking for this book by author, on Fictionwise it has the author as Michael Frost.

PS, I did purchase the ebook from Fictionwise and inside the book the author is listed as Sarah Rees Brennan. Weird.
6. AzureLunatic
I had suspected that Nick might be possessed, but I hadn't suspected how very completely possessed he was!
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
I've read it and was slightly dubious about it until the reveal which I thought was fabulous.

My review; comments from the author and another reader on the question of Nick's sense of humor, which I hadn't believed in while reading.
Nina Lourie
8. supertailz
@4 You are absolutely right about the kind of love, which is why I loved their relationship so much. It broke my heart to think of Nick as a little lost boy and he doesn't know where to go and what to do and he just wants to go home.

Gerald...was that young Magician? Why don't I remember a Gerald?

I really want to see more Sin, I'll admit. And yes! Female demon!...L something?
(Also, and I made this mistake in my earlier comment, why does my bran insist that Alan is Alex?? I kept having to correct myself as I wrote the review!)

@6 At that point, does it even count as possession? But still, you came closer than I did. I really assumed that the whole possession makes you crazy thing was pretty much inviolable, so I assumed that since he wasn't crazy (well, not that kind of crazy) and didn't seem to have any special powers he had to be a magician, not a demon.

@7 I think you might be a deeper reader than I am! I honestly didn't even think that much about the humour other than to LOL at it and eagerly keep reading. In retrospect, I get what you're saying, but I think the comment from "another reader" struck the closest to my experience with it. The stuff that I found the funniest was funny partially because I knew that Nick meant it dead seriously, whereas when he actually *tried* to be funny, I think it fell...not necessarily flat, but slightly sideways, but he is strange and alien and just doesn't quite get it. So yes, the humour that worked for me - and that I noticed mostly - was in the writing, not in Nick's attempts, like the very first line? It's not something Nick says, or would say jokingly. He would think it was completely serious, I would think it was hilarious and he would be so confused as to why I think it's that funny. Which is my way of saying, I totally get what you mean and yet, it worked fine for me anyway.:)
9. sgt_majorette
I read the book three times in one sitting, and the ending smacked me upside the head every time!
10. anikakinka
I realized something is off about Nick when his extreme dyslexia was shown. Then the whole water thing made me sure that he must have something from the demon.
But I thought he's a half demon because um... Actually it never crossed my mind that he can be a full demon.
And then, after finishing the book I felt really stupid for not seeing THAT coming.

Ah, and NickxLiannan ftw, my favorite pairing.
11. Nienna
*nods along*

I agree with your thoughts on Mae in particular. To me so far she felt more of a let's-make-a-proper-role-model-for-young-girl-readers-for-once character. And in doing that so far, Sarah forgot to make her endearing or flawed for me. She is brave (nearly fearless as Nick), and stands for herself, and loves and fights and kills for her brother, and is so very confident of her sexuality (at 17? I know I wasn't), she is curvy (again role model), she takes shit from no one, she's full of righteous fury... all very admirable but very cardboard model-y. I find it difficult to empathize or identify with her character at all. The only 'flaw' so far is her notice-me choice of wardrobe and hair dye (parental neglect issues Nick mentions briefly). I do hope we so some genuine flaws and distinguishing character traits in the next installment because as a character she's not working for me yet. Maybe Sarah is purposefully keeping her 'under wraps' because the next books big revelation is about her?

Oh, and the ending revelations? Did not see it coming at all (I was in the he's a magician boat/only Alan's half brother). It completely floored me, deeply moved me and the whole concept of it completely wowed me. I agree - it wasn't that Nick was particularly appealing on its own, or Alan for that matter - but Alan And Nick dynamic is just so engrossing and fascinating and enthralling, particularly when you backpedal after reaching the end.

On a whole I think it's a beautiful read, and I will be counting months till the next part.
Dan Sparks
12. RedHanded
@3 Thanks! From the comments it sounds like it will be a good read, finally I win something!
Eugene Myers
13. ecmyers
After picking this book up on release day after also encountering Sarah's blog through a mutual friend, I finally just got around to reading it (and your excellent review). I really enjoyed the book and didn't see all the twists coming. Everything was set up well and there was adequate misdirection to keep me guessing for the most part, but when I'm caught up in a good story as I was here, I'm not usually trying to outsmart the book.

I thought this actually works well as a standalone--at least it didn't end on a massive cliffhanger like many trilogies do. I got a strong Supernatural vibe from the book, with the way demons are handled and the brothers' close but broken relationship. It also evoked other good books like the Bartimeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud and Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium. And on the cover, Nick looks oddly like Tom Welling from Smallville :)

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