Book Review

Guest Bitch Review: Demon Angel by Meljean Brook

B+

Title: Demon Angel
Author: Meljean Brook
Publication Info: Berkley 2007
ISBN: 0425213471
Genre: Paranormal

Editor’s Note: Smart Bitch regular Robin won a copy of Meljean Brook’s Demon Angel on the condition that she review it by the 15th of January. However, Robin didn’t have a blog, and hosting it on Meljean’s site would’ve looked, well, iffy at best. This is where the Bitches come in. Robin’s a regular, Meljean’s a friend, and Lord knows we could use more reviews in this here joint anyway. Therefore: Robin’s review for your reading pleasure, right here on Les Salopes Intelligentes.


About a third of the way through Demon Angel an awareness settled over me of what – for me, at least—separates great paranormal fiction from anything less:  regardless of the otherworldly elements and characters, the focus of my favorite paranormal novels is ultimately on human emotions and dilemmas.  The paranormal, in other words, allows me to see the so-called normal in a different and hopefully new way.  That’s why I adore Charlaine Harris’s southern vampire series so much (although I know it’s not Romance per se); Sookie is the heart of each and every one of those books, struggling to come into her own as a woman and a strong, independent person in a world that holds numerous dangers, many of which are entirely mundane.  Such is the strength of Meljean Brook’s debut novel, too, as a story of two strong individuals who struggle with themselves, with each other, and with what it means to be human.

Given the central role of love in Romance, you’d think that Paranormal Romance would be a very dynamic subgenre—a passionate love match wrapped up with a story about what it means to be human and to be so powerfully connected to another, who is often truly “other.† What is more human than falling in love and struggling through the various issues and obstacles that threaten the couple’s forever love and happiness?  But surprisingly, at least to me, more than a few of the Paranormal Romances I’ve read fail to give me that double impact I so look forward to.  Whether it’s because the paranormal aspects of the book overshadow the emotional interaction of the lovers, or because they seem no more than a slightly exotic backdrop, I haven’t found as many great Paranormal Romances as I once expected to.  I want more Paranormal Romances that match the intensity and beauty of, say, Sharon Shinn’s Archangel or the quirky insights into human nature I get from the Sookie Stackhouse books.  I know that many readers absolutely adore J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but even those books are often discussed as a “guilty pleasure,†especially for readers who wrestle with their feminist beliefs when (or usually after) reading the books.  Thus my expectations going into Demon Angel were pretty low, and my excitement after only 50 pages or so a welcome surprise.

When I started reading Demon Angel, several things struck me.  First of all, it was clear right from the start and Hugh and Lilith were both protagonists with tremendous strength and hubris.  That Hugh’s ego and sense of pride were tied to his idealism and his dedication to truth did not make it any less powerful or complex than Lilith’s paradoxical loyalty to duplicity and cultivating weakness in her human prey.  Early on Brook introduces the phrase there can be no light without darkness, which, while hardly a new revelation, still resonates meaningfully throughout the novel, because Brook is not set on keeping yin on one side of the equation and yang on the other.  Instead, Hugh, who is in the business of salvation, and Lilith, who is in the business of destruction, are forever in the process of examining and renegotiating their roles, not only in relation to each other, but also in their larger significance to the cosmic interplay of good and evil, light and dark, kindness and cruelty.  At one level, Demon Angel is the story of two characters who cannot escape their essential nature but are both mistaken in regard to who they think they are.  And through their relationship, not only do they truly discover each other, but they also play out the unsettled relationship between sacrifice and salvation, both human and immortal.  Brook uses the bond between Hugh and Lilith – which essentially proceeds as a series of ever more intimate and dangerous bargains – to demonstrate the novel’s insistence that appearances can be deceiving. 

I realize that all of this probably sounds like some humorless theological seminar, but that’s one of the wonderful turnabouts in Demon Angel.  While it’s not a book filled with epic revelations, it’s by and large an incredibly inventive, lusty, adventurous, and compelling Romance, with two characters whose fates are – in both the most literal and cosmic sense – intertwined, and their love both human and spiritual.  Not, to be sure, in the traditional sense of an inspirational novel, but more in the sense that these two characters have a strong presence beyond the physical, and the levels on which their bond grows extend from the profane to the sacred and back again.

There are already a number of very detailed reviews of this book on various reader blogs (check out Bam and DearAuthor, for example), and much of the plot of the novel is revealed in these reviews, so I will skip the in depth synopsis (plus it’s freaking hard to do this novel justice by writing a linear plot summary – even if I were capable of such a thing, which I am obviously not).  Generally speaking, the first hundred pages and eight hundred years or so of the novel are an exhilarating whirlwind of bargains and battles and repressed lust, with the young knight Hugh going from human to Guardian to human again, and the demon halfling Lilith going from full to less empowered demon as her father, Lucifer, becomes increasingly disappointed with Lilith’s growing conscience and affection for Hugh.  This part of the novel centers around the conflict between Hugh’s inclination to teach and serve honorably on earth and in Caelum and Lilith’s contrary mandate to exploit human weakness and recruit more lost souls for Lucifer.  That Hugh and Lilith are immediately attracted to each other isn’t just because opposites attract, but because they aren’t exactly opposites deep down. 

Hugh’s first exchange with Lilith occurs when Hugh stumbles upon her sexually dominating a half-naked and blindfolded seneschal of his lady’s castle, a man known for his vanity, pride, and cruelty, and this scene immediately marks Lilith as temptation in the most dangerous of ways.  The world-weary Lilith is attracted to the boy-knight Hugh in spite of herself, and it is not long before she finds various ways to tease and provoke him, sometimes in the guise of the Lady Isabel, who is no more than a child herself, married to an older and exceedingly jealous baron, and clearly infatuated with the gallant and handsome Hugh.  Hugh engages with Lilith in almost every way—debating, bargaining, teasing, lusting. Soon it becomes clear that neither is what they appear to be on the surface:  Lilith is not a ruthless tool of Lucifer and Hugh is not an almost-saint.  For example, Lilith defies her hellish service by giving Hugh to his heavenly (literally) mentor Michael to be made into a Guardian (not exactly an angel, but a divine protector of humans, nonetheless) when he is mortally stabbed after mistaking Lady Isabel for a disguised Lilith and almost raping her out of anger and lust.  After Hugh’s transformation, Guardian and halfling demon continue to spar and to lust, while Lilith becomes wearier of tormenting her victims and Hugh becomes less able to rationalize and accept the violence he sees in the more modern world.  The closer together they seem to come, though, the more the tension between them increases, culminating in a clash in which Hugh stabs and buries Lilith, his sense of despair and loss driving him to fall to earth and resume life as human, fully believing Lilith is dead and released from service to Lucifer.

The second section of the novel takes place in current day (well, a few months from now, actually) San Francisco, where one of the gates to Hell stands just below the Golden Gate Bridge (a convenient place to catch all the suicides).  Hugh has become a disconsolate university professor and a cult hero for a version he wrote of Lilith’s story, which his adoptive “sister,†Savitri (the heroine of Brook’s next novel), surreptitiously discovers, wretchedly translates, and publishes as a gift for Hugh.  The books circulate to others, though, even spawning a game called DemonSlayer, which Hugh’s students like to play, pissing off the megalomaniacal Lucifer because it stars Lilith instead of himself.  Hugh is unfulfilled but steady in his life, until his students start disappearing, nosferatu are unexpectedly prevalent and active in the city, and Lilith surprises him with the fact that she is both alive and an agent for the FBI, which has joined the SFPD in trying to solve the disappearance/murders of Hugh’s students (for which, of course, he is the prime suspect).  This part of the novel puts Lilith and Hugh finally in the position to banter and bargain like old times, to consummate their long flirtation, and to join forces against the nosferatu and a variety of ambitious demons (many of whom work as civil servants!).  Hugh also has the teeny tiny goal of saving Lilith from Lucifer, who “saved†Lilith after Hugh stabbed her, only to torture her and then send her back to earth with the express order to kill Hugh by way of convincing him to submit to an insane ritual that will further empower Lucifer, punish Lilith for caring about Hugh, and destroy Hugh once and for all.  The more human Lilith becomes, of course, the more difficult it is for her to imagine losing Hugh, and the more vulnerable Hugh finds Lilith, the more convinced he is that he will sacrifice himself to save her.  Lilith is a woman who has always been wary of kindness, and Hugh feels incredibly guilty about the moments of cruelty he has indulged in over time.  Would Hugh’s sacrifice be kindness or cruelty to Lilith, and which would she prefer?  Would Lilith’s sacrifice (by defying her father’s authority) be kindness or cruelty to Hugh when she would be lost to him forever?  For these characters, and in the world of the novel, it is sometimes difficult to discern the difference, let alone to decide what would be more just.

It is in this second section of the book that much of the mythology is fleshed out, most of the mysteries explained, and the lion’s share of the novel’s complexity occurs.  It is also the most problematic in terms of evaluating the novel’s success, because some of the book’s ambition turns back on itself.

It was fascinating and entrancing to watch Hugh and Lilith dance their dance across time and various earthly and unearthly forms of existence.  The first section of the novel creates an almost palpable sexual and emotional tension between Hugh and Lilith, with all the tendrils of their complicated mutual attraction nicely drawn:

  . . . “Shall we bargain?’

A low, tortured groan escaped him, rumbling against her chest.  “God, no.â€

She laughed but persevered.  “I’ll keep you warm.â€

“And I will owe you doubly?  A lie and . . . a kindness?â€

Rocking against his arousal with a wicked smile, she said, “’Tis not a kindness I offer you, but pleasure.  Or temptation.  Or pain, depending on how you take it.â€

“To me, it would be comfort and warmth only,†. . . “What would bring comfort to a woman such as you?  What would be kind?â€

She stilled.  Felt her mask of amusement slip.  He must have seen her – desperation?  Regret? She dared not name them, even to herself.  “Naught you can give.â€. . .

He watched her, as if trying to determine whether she spoke truth or merely toyed with him.  “The bargain cannot be struck. . . . Though I would offer kindness, it seems equality in this exchange is impossible.â€

“And would you take the temptation if I were like Isabel?  Beautiful and pure?†. . .

“If you were like Lady Isabel, you would be married. . . . And it would be a betrayal of fealty to my lord and God.  Will you betray your liege in return?  To whom do you owe loyalty, that it would be equal?â€

. . . “Do not be kind to me,†she said finally. (pp. 32-33)

Brook weaves together the lust between Hugh and Lilith with some of the existential questions of the novel so that the relationship between the two of them has a deepness, even early on in the book, and the metaphysical issues Brook is introducing become more accessible through Hugh and Lilith’s interaction.  It’s a nice combination, and it keeps the first section of the novel very buoyant. 

The second part of the novel was less successful for me, in part, I think, because it is difficult to keep an effective balance between complexity and intensity, especially when an author is both worldbuilding and relationship building with as much intricacy as Brook is.  Her writing style reminds me very much of Jo Goodman (of whose work I am a big fan), both in her languorous attention to detail and her tendency to make sure the reader doesn’t miss anything.  I love the attention to detail, the way, for example, she describes the various areas of San Francisco (I go to school in the Tenderloin, so I had no problem imagining demons exploiting lost souls there), and the care she takes in focusing the reader’s attention on the mundane details of modern life for characters who are far from mundane.  More wearing in the second part of the novel, however, are the detailed explanations of things I would have been perfectly happy discerning myself:

Steam filled the small room.  Lilith quietly closed the door, began slipping out of her clothes.  The outline of Hugh’s body, wavering behind the frosted glass; his hand was braced against the shower wall, his head bowed beneath the spray.

She stepped inside, and he turned toward her, gave a half-hearted smile.  “Are you here to tempt me?â€

“No.† She ran her hands over his shoulders, and she kissed him. His lips were salty; she drew back, studied him.  Not all of the moisture on his face was from the shower. . . . (p. 373)

                   
I wish Brook had enough faith in her readers or confidence in herself to let Hugh’s salty lips speak for themselves (well, you know what I mean).

In writing this review, I looked back over the first part of the book and noticed that the explicating prose is there, too, but I didn’t notice it as detrimental until about a hundred or so pages from the end of the book.  Several reviews of the book have pointed out that the second section is talkier, and that is certainly true, as is the fact that the plotting and worldbuilding of the book are pretty intricate.  But I don’t really think that’s what made the second section drag a bit for me.  I do think it’s a pacing issue, but one related more to the cumulative weight of Brook’s descriptive prose than a failure to keep the action moving at an engaging pace.  Because there is a lot of action in the second half of the book, especially near the end, but I felt slightly labored in reading it.  I do not, however, think this is a fatal flaw in Brook’s writing as much as a first original full-length novel issue.  Certainly I don’t think that the book was too intricately plotted or detail-heavy to be accessible.  There were points, especially in the beginning, where I wondered about something that was explained more fully later.  And there were moments in the second part of the book where I had to re-read passages or flip back to catch up on something I thought I had missed.  But again, if Brook can find a way to better balance the explication and description with the actual details she needs to get across – that is, to discern more effectively what is and isn’t necessary to explain—  I think her prose will become much more powerful and the pacing of her work smoother.     

As for the characters, though, Brook excelled in drawing two protagonists who antagonize as much as they demonstrate their heroic qualities.  The mirroring between Lilith, who seems to thrive on deception and destruction, and Hugh, who appears to value only honor and order, is really lovely, creating two remarkably likeable characters that are not one-dimensional or unambiguous in their morality.  While Lilith enjoys exacting a twisted price from people who commit horrible acts, she also sees it as justice somehow, and not simply the perversity that drives those who do not know truth from falsity.  Created from a human form, she never completely loses her humanity, and as hard as she tries to remain demonic, Lilith cannot bring herself to fully ruin Hugh.  And while Brook could have easily made the monkish Hugh a staid, rather boorish counterpoint to the dynamic Lilith, instead she draws him as unsettled and self-accusing, ill at ease with a Guardian’s responsibilities to protect humans but still aspiring to honorable service.  I have to say that I have a weakness for angsty heroes and ballsy heroines, so both Hugh and Lilith work for me on every level.  Plus the whole notion of service gets a nice workout in the novel, from what it means to serve a master deceiver (Lucifer) to what it means to submit to one’s passions and feelings.  Where strength finds its match in vulnerability; where honor can be found in a lie; where action takes place in reflection – all of this and more filters through Demon Angel.  As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about my high school Latin class, and the definition of “virtu†we learned:  the best that man (hey, they were Romans and my teacher was an old-fashioned kind of guy) can do.  That contemplation of virtue, of the highest aims of humans and what counts as “best†under morally ambiguous circumstances, is definitely a preoccupation of Brook’s fictional world.

As I said before, I really liked the San Francisco setting, and followed along in my head through various locations. Although I personally think that traversing the Bay Bridge is a more hellish experience, it was clever having the gates to Hell located under the Golden Gate Bridge.  It was a hoot to see Colin again (from Brook’s story “Falling For Anthonyâ€), with the delicious irony in his insistent desire to paint his self-portrait through time.  I also adored Lilith’s hellhound, Sir Pup (a tribute to Sir Hugh the puppyish medieval knight), who was allowed to be a character and not just an amusing oddity.  And I liked the fact that while icky and ugly things happen in the novel, Brook doesn’t linger over the details, so I got a sense of how bad Chaos and The Pit were, for example, but didn’t get excruciatingly gruesome descriptions I’d have to work to forget later (what can I say—I’m a wimp).  I very much appreciated how Brook built the sexual tension between Lilith and Hugh while not glossing over the fact that Lilith was a demon.  Her true demon form includes scaly red skin, leathery black wings, cloven hooves and forked tongue, and she creates a sexual spark in Hugh at her most inhuman looking; in fact, the first time they have sex Lilith is in her full demon shape, complete with claws and blood-drawing scales on her breasts and nipples.  That her appeal to Hugh extends beyond her transitive human form(s) was one of the nice surprises of the novel for me, as was the fact that Hugh remains pretty sexually inexperienced for some 800 years of his relationship with Lilith.  Brook doesn’t make a big deal of the fact that Hugh is a virgin, in the same way she doesn’t write Lilith as a slut who needs to be reformed, and while I really did wonder at how Hugh remained “pure†for all that time, it worked within the parameters of the story because of his generally ascetic ways. 

I’m definitely looking forward to the next book, Demon Moon, not only because I want more of the vain vampire Colin, but also because I’m hoping some of my lingering questions from “Falling For Anthony†and Demon Angel will be answered.  I’m still not certain I understand all the nuances of Brook’s mythology, even as she draws from Milton, Dante, and Bosch.  I haven’t had time to go back through Demon Angel to piece through the origins of some of the characters and the relationships, so I don’t feel confident yet in holding against the book some of the things I may have missed.  I do hope, though, that as the series continues the world Brook is building becomes more fleshed out.  And I have to say that I finished Demon Angel satisfied that in Brook’s paranormal world, love is the highest form of service, and earthly justice found in a very human and very happy ending for the lovers.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Nathalie says:

    Les salopes intelligentes!!  You do my French heart proud!

  2. 2
    PC Cast says:

    Well done Robin!  An excellent review to add to the bitchery.  And you’ve just enticed me to buy this book.

  3. 3
    Jane says:

    What a wonderful review.  You really encapsulated what spoke to me in the book and that is

    At one level, Demon Angel is the story of two characters who cannot escape their essential nature but are both mistaken in regard to who they think they are.  And through their relationship, not only do they truly discover each other, but they also play out the unsettled relationship between sacrifice and salvation, both human and immortal.

    It was fascinating to read the multi layered nature of the book and have Lilith and Hugh represent two sides of an overlapping coin.  One trait of Hugh’s that is not often mentioned is his “ego” but also his selfishness. When he was no longer fulfilled in his role as guardian, he fell.

    The full blooded characters make the romance so much more rich.

  4. 4
    Metal Monkey says:

    Wow – that was a really looooooooong review. But I read every single word. Yours is the first review that made me want to buy this book. Good job!

  5. 5
    Robin says:

    Wow – that was a really looooooooong review.

    I know—and I worked on it for a couple of days, because there was SO MUCH I wanted to talk about, and because everything is interconnected, it’s like trying to work your way out of a spiral.  Thanks for reading it all, and I really hope you like the book!

    One trait of Hugh’s that is not often mentioned is his “ego” but also his selfishness. When he was no longer fulfilled in his role as guardian, he fell.

    The full blooded characters make the romance so much more rich.

    Yeah, one of the greatest things about Hugh, IMO, was the fact that he DID have an ego.  When I think of the heroes I’ve loved who have also been “good,” they’ve also been complicated by an overdominance of something positive—like Ruck’s honor in For My Lady’s Heart or Christy’s sense of mission in To Love and To Cherish.  For all of these men, their goodness is unequivocal, but still they struggle under the weight of what they feel is the “right” thing.  It’s a fine line between a well-drawn angsty hero and a martyr, but I think Hugh stays enough on the angsty side to be really attractive but still compelling.  And when he becomes a martyr, he has Lilith there to snap him out of it (insert image of Cher slapping Nicholas Cage’s face in “Moonstruck”).

    Another thing I liked was the joke about “pity” Hugh and Lilith have in the second part of the book.  There was just so much to say about this book, and I know I went too long as it is, but there was just a lot to like in there, IMO.

    And you’ve just enticed me to buy this book.

    I don’t think you’ll be disappointed—it’s much, much stronger than “Falling for Anthony,” and for a first book, pretty accomplished, IMO.

  6. 6
    kardis says:

    That was a great review, Robin. I just finished one on my blog the other day and I found it extremely difficult to put what I loved about it into words. Very good job!

  7. 7
    Kristie(J) says:

    A very good review!!!  And even though as Metal Monkey says it’s long, I too read every word.  One of the few times I’ve really been as caught up in a review as I have in the book itself.  Kudos!!

  8. 8
    Katie Ann says:

    Long but engaging review.  :)  Wonderful job.  “Demon Angel” is next on my shopping list!

  9. 9
    LFL says:

    Very well-written review, Robin.

  10. 10
    Jaci Burton says:

    What a wonderfully written, insightful review. I’ve already bought Demon Angel and it’s waiting for me to finish my deadlines so I can tear into it. I can’t wait!

  11. 11
    shaunee says:

    Robin,

    Picked up Demon Angel based on PC Cast’s review of your review and I couldn’t agree more with your review.  You absolutely nailed it!

    Based on Brook’s writing style, I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel.  My suspicion is that it will be a bit more seamless now that the rules of her world are set in stone, so to speak.

    Sometimes knowing the world you’re building and actually writing it are two very different things.  What to include, what to hold back and how to express it all (cryptically or showing all your cards) while trying to convey the complexities of a burgeoning relationship can be a major trial.  Furthermore, characters tend to take on a life of their own in a work in progress and before you know it, your very carefully planned world has to be modified.

    Anyway, great review and great book!

  12. 12

    Noooo! Aaaarrgghh! Amazon have delayed delivery of my copy while they order more of them from the publisher.

    If it hasn’t arrived by the next time I visit the people generously acting as my poste restante, I think my head might explode. I haven’t looked forward to reading a new book so much in a very long time.

  13. 13
    Robin says:

    Hopefully those who don’t want to slog through my review will take all the raves about Brook’s book here in the comments and get Demon Angel.

    Sometimes knowing the world you’re building and actually writing it are two very different things.  What to include, what to hold back and how to express it all (cryptically or showing all your cards) while trying to convey the complexities of a burgeoning relationship can be a major trial.

    There had been so much written about DA before I got to it, I thought I’d have nothing to say myself—surprise!. I think I had the same problem reviewing the book that Meljean did writing it, which is why I wasn’t so quick to hold against the book some of the more convoluted moments.  I think she did a great job given the incredible level of detail she used in the book (and I get the sense that she has TONS more that she didn’t even include).  Just the difficulties in figuring out how to review the book made me more sympathetic to the discipline Brook had to practice to balance the characterizations, relationship building, and worldbuilding aspects of the book.  I also understand why some authors choose a more superficial approach to worldbuilding (like Emma Holly in The Demon’s Daughter), especially given the deadlines we hear about so often and the breakneck pace so many authors are writing under.  I hope the response that Meljean’s books is getting will encourage more editors to cultivate complex novels that—while perhaps requiring longer writing time—will satisfy readers who hunger for meatier reads.

  14. 14
    Shaunee says:

    Robin,

    From your lips…

    And while I’m ridiculously grateful for the meatiness with which you ascribe Brook’s work, I still have great affection for more fluffy efforts.  I think, for me at least, the commonality between the two lies in committed writing that has the author’s respect because it has very obviously been well researched and thoroughly loved well past adolescence into adulthood or some semblance thereof.

    Loretta Chase is perfectly a-historical, if I’m allowed to make up a word.  Her heroines are not typical and her details are only sometimes slightly accurately.  Yet her work is thoroughly satisfying

    Brook’s and Chase have at least that in common.

  15. 15
    Robin says:

    Loretta Chase is perfectly a-historical, if I’m allowed to make up a word.  Her heroines are not typical and her details are only sometimes slightly accurately.  Yet her work is thoroughly satisfying

    I’m not sure I think of Chase’s books as “fluffy,” but I agree totally with your general point that it’s the diversity of voices—both dark and light—in the genre that’s so critical.  I haven’t spent a great deal of time figuring out what’s accurate or not in Chase’s books, but I so very much appreciate that they don’t talk like 21st century adolescent girls that she could probably do a lot of historical wrong without my noticing.  I’m nervous about her return to Avon, but still look forward to her new book.  I guess for me it’s a difference between “light” Romance and “lite” Romance—I can definitely appreciate light, but I’ve been less entranced with lite.

  16. 16
    Ziggy says:

    Great review! I really want to read this book now!

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