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 â€“ 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. Thatâ€™s why I adore Charlaine Harrisâ€™s southern vampire series so much (although I know itâ€™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 Brookâ€™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, youâ€™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 â€œother.â€ What is more human than falling in love and struggling through the various issues and obstacles that threaten the coupleâ€™s forever love and happiness? But surprisingly, at least to me, more than a few of the Paranormal Romances Iâ€™ve read fail to give me that double impact I so look forward to. Whether itâ€™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 havenâ€™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 Shinnâ€™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. Wardâ€™s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but even those books are often discussed as a â€œguilty pleasure,â€ 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 Hughâ€™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 Lilithâ€™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 â€“ which essentially proceeds as a series of ever more intimate and dangerous bargains â€“ to demonstrate the novelâ€™s insistence that appearances can be deceiving.
I realize that all of this probably sounds like some humorless theological seminar, but thatâ€™s one of the wonderful turnabouts in Demon Angel. While itâ€™s not a book filled with epic revelations, itâ€™s by and large an incredibly inventive, lusty, adventurous, and compelling Romance, with two characters whose fates are â€“ in both the most literal and cosmic sense â€“ 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 itâ€™s freaking hard to do this novel justice by writing a linear plot summary â€“ 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 Lilithâ€™s growing conscience and affection for Hugh. This part of the novel centers around the conflict between Hughâ€™s inclination to teach and serve honorably on earth and in Caelum and Lilithâ€™s contrary mandate to exploit human weakness and recruit more lost souls for Lucifer. That Hugh and Lilith are immediately attracted to each other isnâ€™t just because opposites attract, but because they arenâ€™t exactly opposites deep down.
Hughâ€™s first exchange with Lilith occurs when Hugh stumbles upon her sexually dominating a half-naked and blindfolded seneschal of his ladyâ€™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 Hughâ€™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 Lilithâ€™s story, which his adoptive â€œsister,â€ Savitri (the heroine of Brookâ€™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 Hughâ€™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 Hughâ€™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 â€œsavedâ€ 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 Hughâ€™s sacrifice be kindness or cruelty to Lilith, and which would she prefer? Would Lilithâ€™s sacrifice (by defying her fatherâ€™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 lionâ€™s share of the novelâ€™s complexity occurs. It is also the most problematic in terms of evaluating the novelâ€™s success, because some of the bookâ€™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:
. . . â€œShall we bargain?â€™
A low, tortured groan escaped him, rumbling against her chest. â€œGod, no.â€
She laughed but persevered. â€œIâ€™ll keep you warm.â€
â€œAnd I will owe you doubly? A lie and . . . a kindness?â€
Rocking against his arousal with a wicked smile, she said, â€œâ€™Tis not a kindness I offer you, but pleasure. Or temptation. Or pain, depending on how you take it.â€
â€œTo me, it would be comfort and warmth only,â€ . . . â€œWhat 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 â€“ desperation? Regret? She dared not name them, even to herself. â€œNaught you can give.â€. . .
He watched her, as if trying to determine whether she spoke truth or merely toyed with him. â€œThe bargain cannot be struck. . . . Though I would offer kindness, it seems equality in this exchange is impossible.â€
â€œAnd would you take the temptation if I were like Isabel? Beautiful and pure?â€ . . .
â€œIf 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€
. . . â€œDo not be kind to me,â€ 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 Lilithâ€™s interaction. Itâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 readerâ€™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 Hughâ€™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. â€œAre you here to tempt me?â€
â€œNo.â€ 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 Hughâ€™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 didnâ€™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 donâ€™t really think thatâ€™s what made the second section drag a bit for me. I do think itâ€™s a pacing issue, but one related more to the cumulative weight of Brookâ€™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 Brookâ€™s writing as much as a first original full-length novel issue. Certainly I donâ€™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 â€“ that is, to discern more effectively what is and isnâ€™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 Guardianâ€™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 oneâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€œvirtuâ€ 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 â€œbestâ€ under morally ambiguous circumstances, is definitely a preoccupation of Brookâ€™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 Brookâ€™s story â€œFalling For Anthonyâ€), with the delicious irony in his insistent desire to paint his self-portrait through time. I also adored Lilithâ€™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 doesnâ€™t linger over the details, so I got a sense of how bad Chaos and The Pit were, for example, but didnâ€™t get excruciatingly gruesome descriptions Iâ€™d have to work to forget later (what can I say—Iâ€™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 doesnâ€™t make a big deal of the fact that Hugh is a virgin, in the same way she doesnâ€™t write Lilith as a slut who needs to be reformed, and while I really did wonder at how Hugh remained â€œpureâ€ for all that time, it worked within the parameters of the story because of his generally ascetic ways.
Iâ€™m definitely looking forward to the next book, Demon Moon, not only because I want more of the vain vampire Colin, but also because Iâ€™m hoping some of my lingering questions from â€œFalling For Anthonyâ€ and Demon Angel will be answered. Iâ€™m still not certain I understand all the nuances of Brookâ€™s mythology, even as she draws from Milton, Dante, and Bosch. I havenâ€™t had time to go back through Demon Angel to piece through the origins of some of the characters and the relationships, so I donâ€™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 Brookâ€™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.