Actually I Quite Liked It

by Wardog

Wardog has *also* been reading Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon...
I guess I have some kind of semi, self-destructive obsession with books written by ex-members of the Harry Potter fandom, and I’m wondering whether I need to get treatment for it. Although I think a healthier way of looking at it may be that I’m still desperately seeking an antidote to Cassandra Clare. Today’s victim is The Demon’s Lexicon, written by Sarah Rees Brennan. As usual, I am vaguely aware of The Name, but from what little I have read of her on the internet, I’ve had her pegged in my head as “basically the narrator from I Capture the Castle.” The problem with extremely charming people is that they always bring out the worst in me. It’s partially jealousy, I'm sure, but it tends to result in me getting up some kind private, psychological “We Shall Not Be Charmed” protest on the sidelines of their life. I mention this in the spirit of full disclosure because I went into The Demon’s Lexicon all wrong, not wanting to like it. And I came out of it really bloody impressed.

Sarah Rees Brennan: 1
Kyra: 0

The plot of The Demon’s Lexicon is actually pretty complicated, and I shall try to shade in the important bits without giving away the cool twists of which they are, well, one but it’s a goodun. Nick and Alan have spent their life on the run because their mother was once in love with a powerful magician called Black Arthur (hee hee). Needless to say, powerful magicians do not take it well you leave them, taking with you a powerful magical item, so he drove his lover mad and has been in hot pursuit ever since. Their mother fled to her ex, a good, normal kind of guy who took her in and protected her … and, of course, died in the process, leaving Nick and Alan to grow up as best they could, fighting for survival and dealing with their genuinely very batshit mum. In Brennan’s setting, magicians are humans who, discovering they have some fragments of magical power, feed other humans to demons for more power. Demons hang out on the edges of the world, desperate for a human host (which is not so great actually for the human in question, since it inevitably leads to a speedy, unpleasant death).

The plot of the book kicks off when a brother and sister, Mae and Jamie, come to Nick and Alan for help because Jamie (who is a gay, because it is impossible for anybody who has ever had any connection with fandom ever not to include a gay in their books) has been marked by a demon. While they’re trying to, semi-reluctantly, deal with this, Alan is also marked by a demon and things spiral in an exciting direction from there.

The book is narrated entirely from Nick’s POV and, ye gods, what a difficult POV it is. He’s cold, ruthless, unemotional, hostile and extremely unlikeable. His dominant mood seems to be anger, and although you can understand it, given the sort of life he’s forced to lead, it’s still intensely wearing. Ultimately you have to respect Brennan’s commitment to her thoroughly grim protagonist. I’m slightly bewildered by all the fangirly reviews which comprise, in the main, breathless declarations of adoration for Nick, and endless squees about how much they’d like to give him a hug. I do wonder if we were reading the same book because I’d walk the other way, very quickly indeed, maybe even run. Of course, I’m in the wrong age and sanity bracket (although given a choice I’d be all about Mae, thanks so very much) to properly appreciate two hot sixteen year old brothers. By the end of the book, you do get more insight into Nick’s character, and why he is the way he is, which helps, but he’s never going to be a basket of kittens. (Also, seriously, if this is the kind of guy you’re into, see the school counsellor, immediately young ladies!).

Brennan handles him very well indeed, keeping him right there on the verge of being unbearable and, when he finally crosses over it, contextualising his thoughts and actions just enough that you keep reading, hoping against hope that he’ll maybe snap out of it and do the right thing. Even though we only ever gets Nick’s, very limited, often bewildered perspective on events and characters, Brennan still manages to paint detailed, convincing portraits of the supporting cast. I think it’s quite a remarkably deft technique: communicating emotions through a protagonist who does not himself understand them. The most important dynamic in the book is that between the brothers, Alan and Nick. It’s banter heavy served on a bed of freshly tossed angst, garnished by a light sprinkling of brotherly love, evoking the early day of Supernatural (before it degenerated into endless repetitions of “I love you Sammy! *manly sob*”) At first Alan seems the opposite of Nick in every respect – he is as kind as Nick is harsh, as sociable as Nick is misanthropic – but as the book unfolds the interest lies in marking their similarities rather than their differences. Although he is easily “nicer” than Nick, in his way Alan is just as cold and just as ruthless. Jamie is Harmless Homosexual #32, sensitive and anxious, hiding his pain and fear beneath a façade of humour:
“So-where’s your dad?”
Nick slammed the fridge door. “He died.”
“Oh.” Now Jamie had the look of a deer caught in the headlights, who for some reason was feeling really sad for the car. “Oh I’m so sorry.”
“Why?” Nick snapped, opening cupboards just so he could bang them closed and express his fury at people who did not know when to shut up. “You didn’t know him. Why should you care?”
“Um. Empathy? Jamie suggested.

All right, so he’s kind of adorable. I don’t know if Brennan is trying to accommodate slashers but he clearly fancies Nick in an “I will never be allowed to get any ever” kind of way. Still, at least he isn’t purple and sparkly like Mangus Bane. Thank God. Although, seriously, let the kid get out of lavender shirts. Not all gay men are fabulous, okay?

Mae, on the other hand, I really did like. As the only woman in the novel, except Batshit!Mum, she’s bearing a heavy responsibility not to be awful. She’s starts off as quite stereotypical heroine material (pink-haired and feisty) but thankfully she soon emerges as a strong, determined and capable human being in her own right. For someone cast in an alien and hostile world, she does damn well. She is neither perfect nor superspecial, she’s occasionally vulnerable, and she makes mistakes. But she’s also rock-solid. I loved the fact she's sensible and confident and as committed to Jamie, in her way, as Alan and Nick are committed to each other. As the only chance anyone has of getting laid without turning gay, she is, needless to say, the epicentre of the book’s sexual tension. On the other hand she actually manages to navigate it gracefully:
He reached out with lazy intent to touch her hair, and she grabbed his wrist an instant before he touched her.
“Think a lot of yourself, don’t you?”
Nick blinked. “I thought-“
“You think you can use me as a way to punish Alan,” said Mae. “I noticed.”
“That wouldn’t be the only reason,” Nick told her, leaning against the willow by her side. The bark was rough against his bare skin.
“Oh no?” asked Mae. “What’s the other reason?”
Nick smiled a small smile that someone watching them would not have been able to see. It touched his lips and lingered for a moment, private and promising. “Might be fun.”
“I don’t think so,” said Mae.
She stepped away from him. Her eyes were narrowed.
“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I’m attracted to you, I could be attracted to Alan but what does it matter? I’ve been attracted to people before. I’m not looking to settle down, and I’m not territory to be fought over in your little war. I won’t let myself be used and I won’t let whatever crisis you’re having hurt my brother’s chance to live.”

Go Mae! I like reading about pretty, angsty boys having angst and being pretty as much as the next girl but I’m increasingly impatient with novels with next to no female characters in them. Brennan seems at least as interested in Mae as she is in the rest of her cast. The focus on Nick and Alan’s unravelling family life means that she was slightly under-used but I am entirely hopeful more of Mae’s awesomeness in future books.

Despite trotting along at a reasonable pace, The Demon’s Lexicon not the most action-packed novel. There are some exciting moments but its main developments and revelations are firmly anchored in the characters. Basically, if you like Alan, Nick, Mae and Jamie, you’ll like The Demon’s Lexicon, otherwise there’s nothing much to draw you. I will say this though: Brennan can really write an ending. Probably because I went in with relatively low expectations, the misdirection fairy led me a merry dance and then my TINY MIND WAS BLOWN.

Brennan has quite a spare, dialogue-reliant style, but it works well for the novel, despite being occasionally a trifle cliched, especially since Nick isn’t exactly the verbose and flowery type. Also throughout the novel the juxtaposition of the banal with the weird and outlandish works very well – for example, the book opens with Nick trying to a fix a leak in the sink because he keeps his favourite sword under there. I rather appreciated Gerald the magician as well. You’d think it would be hard to be even remotely scared of a person called Gerald but he actually becomes quite threatening, almost precisely because of how ‘normal’ he seems.
The magician had a shock of sandy hair, standing up on his head and then falling into his eyes like the petals on a rather floppy daffodil, and beneath the sandy mop he had a narrow, inquisitive face….
He opened wide grey eyes, blinked and looked dismayed.
“Oh Lord,” said the magician. “Now I am in the soup.”

The Demon’s Lexicon is surprisingly dark story, despite all the witty wisecracking and sexual tension. The world Nick and Alan inhabit is a genuinely nasty place. I liked the stark morality of it as well. Although demons are complex creatures with complex needs, magicians are human beings who feed other human beings to demons. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, just plain bad. I’m not sure to what extent this is meant to excuse or simplify the fact that both Alan and Nick are killers are in their own right but I think it allows Brennan to have a pair of protagonists who are willing, and forced, to do some extreme things to protect themselves, without turning them into monsters or insisting that they’re saints. (I’m vaguely reminded of that wonderful Harry Potter video which, sadly, I can’t remember anything about bar the content – it’s basically clip after clip after clip of Harry attacking people with his wand, after which Dumbledore explains very gently that his gift is “love, Harry.”)

Occasionally, however, it doesn’t quite work. We learn that the only way to remove a demon mark is to kill a magician and paint over the mark in their blood. About halfway through they do actually succeed in catching a magician. We are told that Nick and Alan have killed magicians before but nevertheless the plot seems to demand they dance around this one like a pair of utter pansies, allowing him to escape. Of course, there’s a fair degree to dither over – both Alan and Jamie have marks that need removal and there’s a general feeling that Gerald might have some information that would be useful. But, although Brennan insists that Nick has not problem with killing and/or torturing Gerald, they fail to prioritise either in a really troublesome way. I’m not saying that I wanted to watch Nick torture a magician – I’m not sure if that might not have put him morally a little too far out of the grey and into the just plain wrong – but I wish Brennan could have brought this scene to its natural conclusion in a slightly more convincing way, instead of suddenly having a group of people who are nothing if not competent turn inept for no apparent reason.

The Demon’s Lexicon is an extremely competent debut novel, that handles its complicated plot and its complex characters and it’s difficult point of view very maturely indeed. You can tell that it’s a first novel, and there is a touch of fanservice about it here and there, but I really enjoyed reading it. I could have done with a touch more action and a touch less angst, a touch more Mae and a touch less brotherly love, and just a tinsy winsy let up on the wisecracking but I’m definitely interested to see where Brennan will take it.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 13:19 on 2009-09-10
Nick and Alan have spent their life on the run because their mother was once in love with a powerful magician called Black Arthur (hee hee).

Sister Magpie at 19:23 on 2009-09-10
I enjoyed this very much too. And as I understand it, the second book is from Mae's pov.
Wardog at 20:39 on 2009-09-10
Is it really? WEEEEEE!

That makes me really happy. at 20:22 on 2009-09-13
I liked Nick. Not in a "oh I want to hug him and then take his clothes off" kind of way, but in a "I can appreciate a ruthless bastard" kind of way. If your life depends on you killing people before they get to you and your family, angst only gets in the way and makes you stupid at plot convenient moments.

I like Nick a lot better than Alan, actually- since he doesn't really feel anything, and only cares about Alan's life, you always know exactly where he's coming from. Alan can be loving, kind, worried, etc., but he's also a ruthless bastard who can lie and manipulate for whatever ends he serves, good or bad. I can see Alan turning evil a lot sooner than Nick, mostly because he has to compartmentalize, "ok, this is bad, but it prevents this which is worse" or whatever, while Nick is all "I like killing magicians. I like killing anyone who looks at my brother funny. And anyone who suggests that's wrong is really stupid." (Maybe I see a little too much of myself in Nick; I can be plenty compassionate and empathetic, but I totally retreat into hardshelled thing in upsetting situations)

Also, I think a lot of the dithering over killing a magician was a combination of

1. they needed to kill two of them without getting caught themselves; usually they move on after one
2. I'm pretty sure the magician had to be not dead but dying for the blood to work (that's the impression I got at that scene, anyway). I'm not sure Nick is good at the "attack without obliterating" bit.
Robinson L at 00:02 on 2009-09-15
Mae does sound pretty cool, and the attitude toward human relationships displayed in that excerpt is a lot more mature than most of the stuff I've read. Still don't know if I'm interested enough to read the book though, especially after seeing Viorica's reaction.

(I’m vaguely reminded of that wonderful Harry Potter video which, sadly, I can’t remember anything about bar the content – it’s basically clip after clip after clip of Harry attacking people with his wand, after which Dumbledore explains very gently that his gift is “love, Harry.”)
Would that be this one?
Viorica at 02:06 on 2009-09-15
Man, I love ThatGuyWithTheGlasses. He always manages to highlight exactly what's wrong with what he's criticising.

I guess my biggest problem with the book is that it has nothing new to offer. Usually I tend to enjoy stuff that has some kind of new take on things, but this book just seemed to be a rehash of stuff I'd seen before. The close Supernatural parallels were just the icing on the unoriginality cake; when I realized that I could categorize each character after they'd had less than ten lines, I knew that I wasn't going to be entertained.
Wardog at 12:40 on 2009-09-15
That's the one, I knew somebody would be able to find teh clip again for me! Ah, it's a little piece of sublime brilliance. I love it.
I like Nick a lot better than Alan, actually- since he doesn't really feel anything, and only cares about Alan's life, you always know exactly where he's coming from.

Actually that's precisely the reason I prefer Alan. I like the fact that his ruthlessness and his capacity for manipulation lie alongside gentleness and sociability and a very human need to love and be loved. I think it makes him more interesting, since we know precisely *why* Nick is as ruthless as he is.

Also, I get what you're saying about the magician-dither but I just felt that the scene was not as well handled as it could have been.
I guess my biggest problem with the book is that it has nothing new to offer.

I can see why you didn't like but truthfully I think originality is over-rated. I know that's a horribly glib thing to say (must be chanelling Dan) but actually you tend to know what you're getting with teenage urban fantasy and it's well executed that tends to be good enough for me. Also I think Brennan works well with her relatively unoriginal concepts - I mean, yes, Mae starts off like Wild-Child-By-Numbers but she very soon becomes a genuinely admirable person, I think. Also I think Brennan handles and portrays Nick extremely well - that, in itself, raises the book from the mire of mediocrity.

I'm not arguing with you, I think it's going to be one of those "agree to differ" situations, especially because I can see where all your criticisms spring from but I do think Brennan has more to offer than you give her credit for.

Also, Arkan, you should give a go - it's a fun read and genuinely well-done =P Don't like Viorica here put you off :)
Robinson L at 22:36 on 2009-09-16
Happy to oblige.

I can see why you didn't like but truthfully I think originality is over-rated. I know that's a horribly glib thing to say (must be channeling Dan) but actually you tend to know what you're getting with teenage urban fantasy and it's well executed that tends to be good enough for me.

I agree; the unoriginal and familiar can also be enjoyable when well-executed.

I also know next to nothing about Supernatural, which probably helps. The main problem is that I'm chronically behind on my reading (slow reader endless supply of stuff to read), so I have to pick and choose the stuff which really excites me, or which I'm already into. at 02:26 on 2009-09-17
I think what I meant to say about Alan is that I found him *creepy* and kind of too good to be true at first. I kept getting brought up short by reminders that, despite the charisma, he is a dangerous dangerous dude. I kept thinking, "So what else are you hiding" and "why should Jamie and Mae trust you any more than your brother?"
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2009-11-03
Thanks for pushing me to read this. I really enjoyed it. (Hate to say it, but I'm 90 pages into Corbenic and not enjoying it half as much.)

I would actually argue there are two closely related twists, the first of which Viorica spoiled, but the second of which caught me completely off-guard and blew my mind as well.

To my mind, it explains Gerald's escape as well, as killing him would've ruined the plan. Nick didn't know that, but he wasn't really in charge now, was he?

I see what roisindubh211 means about finding Alan creepy. In the first few pages, we learn that although he's extremely personable, he's also, very, very good at manipulating people. I doubted Rees Brennan would go that route, but it struck me as a good description of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (more common label: sociopath) ...

I didn't hate Nick, although he did get awfully irksome when he started hating on Alan, too.

Y'know, I find I have an awful lot to say about this book. Do you suppose it'd been unsporting if I submitted my own review, even though you and Viorica have already covered this territory?
Wardog at 10:29 on 2009-11-04
I'm a bit embarrassed after my gushy reviews that you don't like Catherine Fisher - however, I'm putting it down to your lack of taste ;) To be fair, I don't think she's a very 'modern' style writer - she reminds me of Alan Garner, and Susan Cooper and other such writers who dominated my childhood reading experience (and scared me shitless).

All the same, glad you enjoyed this - and, yes, do feel free to write your own review - can't have too many opinions etc. etc.

I don't think Alan came close to a sociopathetic borderline for me but I think his skill at manipulating others is important to reminding us that the brothers are more alike than they are different ... and that humans have as much capacity to use and abuse other humans as demons do (cf the magicians).

Looking forward to MOAR! :)
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2009-11-04
I wouldn't say I dislike Catherine Fisher (I've been contemplating the distinction between not liking and disliking since long before Jamie said his piece.)

Actually, Susan Cooper is a good example. Like Catherine Fisher, I enjoy her stories (The Dark is Rising series, anyway) but can never seem to get properly immersed in them. I guess come to most stories prepared to enjoy them in an abstract way on merit, but a really engaging story needs to hook me in emotionally. The Demon's Lexicon pulled that off pretty much from the word go, but The Dark is Rising and - so far - Corbenic never seemed to manage it.

and, yes, do feel free to write your own review - can't have too many opinions etc. etc.
Expect me to get back to you in ... oh, about three months or so.

The idea of Alan as a sociopath came to me very early, in their first meeting with Mae and Jamie. I think it came around the time I read this paragraph:

It was a testament to Alan's powers of persuasion that they did not laugh in his face. It was a testament to Alan's powers of looking nonthreatening that he could manage it with the door open on their destroyed kitchen, with a corpse on the floor. He rumpled his red hair and adjusted his glasses in an anxious sort of way, and he took a couple of steps back to the kitchen. He let them see the limp: He used that, the same way he used everything.

Okay, in the wrong hands, that kind of charisma can be seriously dangerous. Of course, we soon learn - just as I'd expected - that unlike persons with ASPD, Alan really does have a conscience and experiences empathy, so that's all right then, after all.

As you point out, we also learn that he's also a lot more selfish and abusive than he appears at first, which makes for a much more interesting and well-rounded character.

Looking forward to MOAR! :)
So am I, although is anyone else worried that Rees Brennan has written herself into a bit of a corner? I mean, she has to find a way to maintain story continuity without resorting to cop-outs or turning Nick into a complete Deus Ex Machina, or the whole thing will be a washout. at 16:10 on 2009-12-02
I'm aware that this review was written months ago and that there is very little chance anyone will read this comment, but whatever. I just really wanted to point out that the bit in the middle, when Nick and Alan have captured a magician and then seemingly become inept seems wrong because it is in fact wrong; what is actually happening is that Alan has decided to let the magician escape - the ineptitude is entirely intended on his part and manipulated into occuring in Nick by him.
Wardog at 18:28 on 2009-12-02
No, no, I keep an eye comments - thanks for this. I guess I wasn't paying enough attention, or perhaps it was a question of clarity.
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