“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.