Exorcist John Fogg and medium Theodora Knight are happily married and running a successful if not well-respected television show about paranormal investigations. On a recent Halloween night, a publicity stunt in a haunted house turns disastrous and John and Theo’s lives are forever altered. That same night an ancient demon god wakes. He selects his depraved apostle and sends him off to collect children to sacrifice. FBI agent Brenna Isabel is tasked with recovering the children, but her own terrible past may drown her first.
In their desperate attempts to rescue Theo from the host of demons that now infest her body, John makes a deal with a metaphorical devil while Theo makes a deal with a literal one. Neither really understand the full ramifications of their actions, and the consequences will be severe. The demons want to kill John and Theo, the god wants to rule the world, and two orders of very powerful men battle over humanity’s soul.
The Demonists is categorized as urban fantasy, but there is nothing especially urban about it. Some things happen in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, but neither city hold any importance as a location; they just happen to be recognizable place names. The story wouldn’t change an ounce if the demon-infested house was set in Phoenix or Shreveport or Los Angeles rather than Pittsburgh. More crucially, most of the action takes place in rural Wallachia and suburban Massachusetts. When I read urban fantasy I’m looking for a story where the city has as much of a role as the characters and settings decidedly not centered on rich dudes’ rural mansions.
Sniegoski also bypasses description in favor of theatrics and action. Another reason the story doesn’t feel like urban fantasy is because the settings, urban or otherwise, never get enough description to mean anything. The scenery gets sparse exploration, just enough to let the reader know the location has changed but not enough to get a feel for it.
Same goes for the characters. I’m not one who particularly needs to know exactly what the cast looks like in striking detail in order to connect with them, but when their physical portrayal is both scant and deeper than their personality development there’s a problem. He revels in painting vivid portraits of the various and sundry demons sealed inside Theodora and luxuriates in grotesque depictions of demonic horrors suffered by the protagonists, but the only things I know about Theo is that she has black hair, “porcelain skin,” and a bit of a sarcastic attitude.
And don’t even get me started on the lack of diversity. The few people of color and not-straight characters are relegated to supporting roles that have no real impact on the main plot or are bad guys. By the end of the book there’s a sea of white men (and male demons) running the show while the two women fall victim to their machinations and rely on the men to stay afloat.
Yet the most disappointing aspect of the story was the persistent fridging and damseling. There’s an argument to be made that what befalls Theodora makes her a stronger woman and that she fights her own battles against the forces of evil. And that’s true to a small extent. Where the problem lies is that all the terrible things that happen to her are used as plot devices to push the story forward or to motivate John into acting.
When she’s possessed by demons, her pain is viewed through John’s eyes and her determination to survive is rooted in a need to be reunited with him. On the few occasions where Theo is in charge of her story her actions, hopes, and fears all revolve around John. She has no personal motivations or interests outside her husband, has no conversations with anyone not relating to her helping her husband, and only seems to exist within his framework. She doesn’t grow as a person, shares no opinions, and has only the barest personality. Theo doesn’t get the chance to deal with her own issues because she’s too busy being the foundation of John’s personal fulfillment
John isn’t much better either. He doesn’t grow either and his co-dependence on Theo borders on unhealthy. He’s so obsessed with rescuing her that he nearly dooms the world and it’s only a last minute influx of guilt that changes his mind. He has few qualms with sacrificing others’ lives if it means protecting his wife—a good guy who dies during an exorcism to save her gets a throwaway line and is never mentioned again—and never develops enough to recognize it. If Theo is a perpetual victim, John is the anti-hero who thinks he’s a hero, and not in an ironic or deconstructionist way.
Overall, the writing is taut, but could use some humor to give the reader and characters room to breathe. While the plot has a rather obvious resolution, the drama is tense, the action bloody, and the demons frightening. That being said, at times the violence veers too far into gratuitous, and the demons often come off as Hieronymus Bosch knockoffs.
Frankly there may actually be slightly too much plot. I would’ve preferred a deeper investigation in the portion of the story involving Cyril Anastos a little more. Likewise with the ghost hunting stuff in the beginning, easily the most inventive section of the story. As it stands the hauntings and Cyril chunks end so abruptly and have so little to do with the demon god third of the book that I had completely forgotten about them until I started writing this review. The ghosts, Anastos, and Damakus plots are engaging while they’re happening and there are enough loose threads with Cyril that you can count on his cohorts turning up in future books.
There’s a large segment of fantasy readers who will find The Demonists a wildly enjoyable book, and more power to them. Its flaws aren’t debilitating, outrageous, or overly offensive. Readers like me who connect to a story through its characters rather than increasingly intense events will likely have a steeper hill to climb.
You’ve read urban and urban-adjacent fantasy books like this before, and that’s not necessarily a condemnation—I can think of at least a dozen with the same structural/cultural problems currently burning a hole in my Kindle. There’s not a lot of originality here but Sniegoski does some interesting things with well-worn material. I have some larger socio-cultural issues with how he tells his story, but the story itself sits comfortably in a long tradition of Dresden-esque fantasy. The story isn’t quite unique enough to be judged on its own merits, nor is it so derivative that it’s boring. The Demonists won’t crack my top ten, but it wasn’t mediocre or outright terrible either. It achieves what it set out to do and with enough thrust to keep the ride more or less entertaining.
The Demonists is available now from Roc.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.