Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: The Demon's Lexicon, Sarah Rees Brennan

This book was a pleasantly unpleasant surprise. The opening was vivid and engaging; it definitely pulled me in and kept me wanting to know more. However, about a third of the way in, I found myself increasingly disturbed by the main character in almost every way. So much so, in fact, that I fought with myself. I knew I should put the book down, but I just couldn't make myself. 

I'm not sure I've ever had a reaction to a book like this before. It alternately disgusted, terrified, and attracted me, so, of course, I loved it.  Being inside Nick Ryve's head was one of the most disturbing experiences I've recently had in my frequent forays into YA paranormal fiction. Rees Brennan's choice to use Nick as her protagonist and third-person point of view turns this book from just another teen read into something gut twisting, but in a kind of pleasant way, like feeling slightly sick after too much cotton candy when getting off the roller coaster. 

Something is wrong with Nick, very badly wrong, and it's obvious from the first third of the book in. Two-thirds of the book in, I started to think perhaps he should have been drowned like an unwanted puppy at birth, which says a lot because drowning puppies is about the sickest thing I can think of. But the truly twisted thing is that I found myself falling for this sick, twisted character. Yes, you heard me. Even though some part of me knew there was something bad and evil and wrong with Nick Ryves, I pulled for him and wanted to see him succeed. 

Nick has exactly two speeds: frozen, and kill. The only thing resembling affection is an overwhelming desire to protect his older brother Alan. At all other times, Nick floats through the narrative very much the dispassionate observer. Even when he kills, even when his own mother can't stand to look at him, Nick merely observes, and feels nothing. He feels no fear, and this makes him the Ryves' family's most effective defense against the deadly magicians who hunt them. Through Nick's dispassionate eyes, we see his brother Alan's fierce and very human love for him, and it is this relationship that proves to be Nick's saving grace. 

Enter two other teenagers, a relatively normal brother and sister who show each other the kind of affection that leaves Nick baffled and strangely on edge, and I realized Rees Brennan had created a character who was more comfortable killing people than hugging. This kind of emotional lockdown could only stem from deeply buried trauma, and from then on, I was hooked, eagerly turning pages as I tried to discover what hidden event had so deeply scarred the Ryves boys that they'd rather face scores of evil magicians than their past.

I was not disappointed. The ending, when it came, was unique in teen fiction. Tragic, hopeful, part Neverland, part Sleeping Beauty, with a little of the Matrix thrown in, Rees Brennan's conclusion to The Demon's Lexicon grappled with heavy questions about the nature of love v. duty, the power of language, and whether getting one's heart's desire is ultimately a blessing or a curse.

Along the way, Rees Brennan offers perhaps the most compelling modern interpretation of Christina Rossetti's classic Pre-Raphelite poem "Goblin Market" I've ever encountered. Her magical world centers around this fabled Market. I loved the way she developed Rosetti's original epic poem, which also features siblings and salvation, into a vibrant magical universe operating just on the fringes of our own very mundane world. Anyone delving into her "Demons" series would benefit from reading the original poem, as much of Rees Brennan's trilogy center around the Market. Moreover, the Market highlights Rees Brennan's own strengths as a writer: she is no literary lightweight. She knows magic, she knows literature, and she knows how to skillfully mix the two