The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

The Devil's DetectiveY’all already know that I’m a sucker for detective stories with a twist (see: The Last Policeman, The Manual of Detection, etc.). So when this book, whose title is no misnomer, crossed my path, I knew I needed to read it.

But I almost didn’t. I picked up the book and started reading about angels coming down to hell to negotiate moving some of Hell’s souls up to Heaven, and I was like, hold on, this is a detective book, right? After I reassured myself that there would somehow be a murder, in Hell, I went back to reading and things got just even weirder. It turns out that the twist in this detective novel is that it’s also a horror novel, which I somehow managed not to guess from the title, and so in addition to police procedures there is also gruesome sex and violence and a lot of creep factor. Not my cup of tea, usually, but there’s enough other stuff to focus on that you can tune a lot of the gross stuff out.

Unsworth’s premise is a Hell wherein Dante-like punishment has been replaced by toil and drudgery, where human souls are fished out of a sea and formed into beings whose profession — whether prostitute or Information Man — and life in Hell is preordained. When humans die, their souls go back out into the sea for the chance of another go-around, until maybe someday they are randomly chosen to go to Heaven.

Once the murder plot came in, the book picked up quickly for me. Our hero, Thomas Fool, is an Information Man, tasked with solving crimes but usually not bothering to, unless it’s deemed really important. The crime that starts off this novel is really important — a human is dead, but not like regular dead, where his soul goes back into the sea to try again, but like super dead, where is soul is completely and totally gone. This is new in Hell, and both the humans and the demons are wary of whatever demon has managed to accomplish this feat. Fool is tasked with solving this crime above all other priorities, and he soon learns (of course) that Hell isn’t quite what it seems.

This book is fascinating mostly for its setting and world-building, laying out a Hell not terribly different from regular life and changing up the rules that we and even the angels of this world are used to. The mystery was not super difficult for me to figure out, but Fool’s troubles with it pave the way for the intriguing ending (that I believe is leading into a sequel) and allow more time to learn about this strange afterlife, so I guess I can give it a pass.

I’m glad I came into this book fairly blind, because I might not have read it otherwise and it’s actually a pretty decent book! If they publish that sequel, I will definitely check it out.

Recommendation: For fans of not-quite-detective stories and those who are not or don’t mind feeling squeamish.

Rating: 8/10

Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin

Another Find MythThings are looking up between me and my coworker, reading-wise… after reading Touch of Frost I have a better idea of what she’ll like and I also know that I need her to explain what’s awesome about a book before I go ahead and read it. Also, she’s promised to give The Eyre Affair another go at some point in the future, which is all a girl can ask for, really.

With this book, though, we almost had a situation on our hands. My coworker was talking about this series to one of our patrons, and she mentioned that it was a send-up of fantasy series, with all the appropriate dragons and such but also a good amount of humor. At the exact same time as I was saying, “Oh, funny fantasy, I love that!”, my coworker was telling the patron, “It’s humorous; Alison wouldn’t like it.” I’m pretty sure a Look was given, and the patron was definitely laughing at us. I couldn’t find this first book in our library or my home library, and I feared I would be unable to prove my clearly advanced sense of humor, but luckily my coworker had a copy and was willing to lend it to me, possibly only to avoid getting stuck on shelf-reading duty. I will take it!

Aaaaaanyway, to get to the actual story part of the story, this turned out to be a pretty funny book! The narrator, Skeeve, is an apprentice magician whose master decides to summon up a demon for a proper introduction and then proceeds to die at the hands of an assassin. Skeeve is terrified of the demon until he finds out that “demon” is just a terrible abbreviation of “dimension traveller” (suuuure it is) and also that this demon, Aahz, would be no worry anyway as Skeeve’s master happened to take away Aahz’s power when he summoned him. As a practical joke. As you do.

Of course, Skeeve soon becomes terrified again, because, you know, dead master, assassins, potential future death, not actually a magician yet, stuck learning all the important things from a guy with no powers. But Aahz is smart and funny and not unlike a certain Bartimaeus, so he is of course able to shepherd Skeeve through all of the ridiculous things that are about to happen to him. These things include mastering disguise, travelling through dimensions, meeting a hot chick, and, you know, going up against the guy who sent the assassin, so there’s something for everyone!

The writing style and the plot of this book reminded me of a slightly less absurd Terry Pratchett novel, which is excellent except that I’d rather gotten used to the absurdity and this book seemed practically straightforward in some places. Asprin also focuses his satire more on the fantasy novel and less on, say, everything in the world, so I felt like I was missing a few things since I’ve never been a big classic fantasy reader.

It’s nothing terribly new to me (though it was probably new in 1978, when this book came out). But I still enjoyed it rather a lot, and after I finish my giant work-based TBR pile (ha… haha… ha…) I may see if my coworker will let me borrow the second book so I can keep up on the exploits of my new friend Skeeve. He seems pretty cool.

Recommendation: For those who like a good satire and a snarky demon.

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

The Boy Who Could See Demons, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

The Boy Who Could See DemonsI found this book while entering some orders for my new library; someone else had picked it out but the blurb sounded interesting enough so I went ahead and put it on hold. When it came in, I was like, I put a hold on what now?, but the cover and the jacket copy were enough to make me put it at the top of my lunch-time reading pile.

This is actually kind of a perfect break-time read, as the chapters are fairly short and provide lots of places to stop when your 15 minutes are up and also the whole book is short so you don’t have time to forget things. On the other hand, it was kind of a terrible break-time read for me, as it suffered from Heart-Shaped Box Syndrome — I put it down at a really super exciting point and came back to find everything gone topsy-turvy and a little bit awful.

First, the good, which is basically the first 90 percent or whatever of the novel. The story is told in diary form and jumps back and forth between two narrators. The first is Alex, the titular boy who has an invisible or imaginary demon “friend” called Ruen who is alternately nice and creepy and horrifying and knows just a little bit too much about things that Alex shouldn’t. The second is Anya, a psychiatrist called in by Alex’s social worker to help him out with his demon issues as well as the issues arising from his mother’s attempted suicide, again.

Alex’s diary entries are pretty fantastically written; he’s a precocious ten-year-old kid and it shows but the writing isn’t nearly as affected as other “kid-written” books I’ve read. I also fell really hard for Alex, who wears suits and ties and just wants a new house for himself and his mom so that they can be happy again. Adorable!

Anya’s narration took longer to get used to, because it’s full of doctor-talk and fancy words and is really stiff and formal, but of course it’s supposed to be and the trading off between her story and Alex’s cuts down on the annoyance factor there. I didn’t get as drawn in to Anya’s backstory, but she unsurprisingly has some personal experience with a kid like Alex that may or may not be clouding her judgement as a psychiatrist.

It’s got a good premise, it knows all the things I like in a multi-narrator story (multiple perspectives of the same event, information being doled out one tantalizing detail at a time and becoming more important to the rest of the story), and it gets quite suspenseful and exciting.

But then, and I will not say what happens but if you are intuitive this is probably all sorts of spoilers, then a Thing happens and another Thing is revealed and the story takes a turn I did not expect but which could probably be expected by other people and I was like are you kidding me. And then I was like, well, okay, maybe this Thing could be an okay Thing, if it were set up a certain way, but it was not set up that way and therefore I am disappointed. It is a Thing that very much makes sense to the story, but making sense and making me happy are unfortunately two different things!

Recommendation: For people who don’t get all bent out of shape about unexpected Things, pretty much. Or people willing not to read the last few chapters and make up their own ending!

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good OmensHee. Teehee. Hehehehehe.

This book, it is delightful. I was hooked from the prologue, which begins with “It was a nice day,” ends with, “It was going to be a dark and stormy night,” and has many humorous sentences in between. By a few pages later, I was texting the friend who had recommended it to me, saying, “I am on page 12 of Good Omens and I may already be in love with it.”

And love it I do. It reminded me very much of the only other Terry Pratchett I’ve read (which was also amazing), but it still felt fairly Gaiman-y to me even though I can’t for the life of me think of a purely funny thing that I’ve read of Gaiman’s. Maybe it’s the pacing of the story that does it? I don’t know. It’s not important.

What’s important is that this book is a, uh, let’s say a divine comedy of errors? Because the two main protagonist-types are Crowley and Aziraphale, the former the apocryphal serpent of Eden and the latter Eden’s angel guardian. One fights for the evil side, one for the good, but both of them spend a lot of time hanging out on Earth, so when the evil side gives humans eleven years to enjoy their universe Aziraphale and Crowley find themselves working together to see if they can’t maybe postpone that end of the world thing a little while.

Their plan is to keep an eye on the Antichrist and get him to make appropriate world-saving decisions, but of course it turns out that they’re keeping an eye on the wrong kid and with just a few days left in the world they have to go find the right one. Others are looking for the child, too, including the Four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” and an occultist following the predictions left by her always-correct-even-if-you-don’t-know-it-until-later ancestor.

Although there is this plotline — Save the Antichrist, Save the World — most of the story dances around it, focusing instead on how the different characters interact with each other, what the meanings of “good” and “evil” really are, and how our human world came to be so immensely screwed up. And as I may have mentioned, it’s really all about the writing, and passages like the following:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

The ending goes on a bit long, and it takes rather a lot of contrivance to get there (but how else would you?), but I was still quite satisfied and mostly I plan to remember those delightful parts anyway.

Although I read about half of it in print, I did end up listening to the whole thing on a quick road trip, and I can say that the audiobook narrator is a perfect fit for the book. Martin Jarvis has a lot of fun making up voices for the large number of characters and imbues them with the incredulity required to live in this very strange universe. If you need a good listen, check this out.

Recommendation: For lovers of Gaiman, Pratchett, Fforde, and other fine masters of British humor, or really just anyone who needs a laugh.

Rating: 9/10

Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory (8 February)

This morning it felt like forever since I picked up a book, even though I finished Children of God, you know, three days ago. I’d meant to start this book right away, but instead I went to the movies twice (Underworld was okay for not having seen the others; Coraline was awesome and I can’t wait to pick up my hold copy from the library) and was otherwise generally lazy. As happens.

Anyway, this book was definitely exciting to me. I picked it up off the new releases shelf at the library because the title had the word “demon” highlighted within “pandemonium” and because the back promised me demonic possession and an appearance by a possessed Philip K. Dick. How do you go wrong with that?

Basically the book tackles the question, what if demons calling themselves The Truth and The Painter and The Captain and several other great stock-character names decided to inhabit people’s bodies at random for kicks and giggles? And, also, what if one of those possessed people realized he never got un-possessed and tried to figure out how to get rid of The Hellion inside him?

I liked it. Pandemonium certainly isn’t literary, but it’s excellent book candy and a quick read. The plot and style remind me of Christopher Moore (whose books I should really get back to reading, now that I think about it), and that’s a compliment.

Rating: 8/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (4 July − 6 July)

This is the first book in a series called The Dresden Files, about a wizard who investigates paranormal crimes. It was recommended to me by a librarian, and I quite enjoyed it.

The wizard is called Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, and he’s got a lot of baggage − he has killed a few people in his time, had some uncomfortable interactions with black magic, and has a pretty crappy love life. In this book, he’s out on two weird cases: in one, people are dying by having their hearts explode, and in the other, a guy who is sort of into magic disappears and his wife wants him found. The Chicago mob gets involved, and also demons, and a skull that contains a spirit who knows all about potions. It’s a little bit all over the place, but it’s totally fun. I’ve got the next book in the series lined up on my shelf.

Rating: 8/10