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02 August 2009 @ 03:53 pm
Book Review: The Demon's Lexicon  
[I've been meaning to write this up for weeks, but alas, the last month has been a case of overworked, sick, overworked, underslept. However, better late than never!]

This is the version of The Demon's Lexicon that Australian importers saw fit to release first: 

The last time I was this wrong-footed by a cover, it was Quentin Blake's cheery illustrations for a Joan Aiken book, which turned out to be a darkly twisty tale that saw a 1970s version of me (about the same height, skinnier, more pinafores) sitting wide-eyed through half the night waiting for something awful to happen. I was few chapters into TDL before I realised it had happened again. There I was half-expecting a normal-ish Young Adult fantasy in which a romance would percolate below the surface and we would be encouraged to personally identify with at least one of the characters, and instead I was in the middle of another darkly twisty tale that was in fact quite deliciously Aiken-y.

The Demon's Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan, is told from the perspective of Nick, a handsome, if somewhat inarticulate, young man, who, within the first four pages, is revealed as being handy with a wrench and sword. He lives with his older brother Alan, a bookish type possessed of one gammy leg and a good eye with a gun and knife, and their mother, Olivia. The family is pursued by magicians: demon-using murderers who are allegedly chasing Olivia for the return of a charm she stole from them when she left their circle. Along the way they take up with Jamie, another innocent victim of the magicians, and his sister, Mae.

Very few of the statements in the preceding paragraph turn out to be wholly true. This is why I think that the UK (and soon to be released Australian paperback) cover is far superior. It shows a dark cityscape, with a grim-faced boy and a conspiracy of ravens gathering. This cover says that this is a book in which things are not as they seem and in which the reader should keep a close eye out at all times. I was misled by the shiny cover, and indeed completely missed the first three clues that told me what this book is really about the first time I read it.

What it is, is a mystery. A good old, classic, it's all there if you know where to look, Agatha-Christie style mystery, while still operating within the parameters of a YA fantasy novel. Brennan's characters exist in a world where few things are wholly clear to any of them. The largest revelation, that magic lies behind the everyday, is a fact of life to Nick and Alan. Their father died rescuing them from a magician's trap, and their mad mother is a constant reminder of the price magic can exact.

To Jamie, who was marked in his 'sleep' by a demon (a fit, fanciable and available demon, delivered straight to your bedroom window, great offer! if you don't ask the price …) and his anxious sister Mae, Nick and Alan's world is not one they want to enter. Alas, the mark leaves them no choice. With it, Jamie is doomed. And so they join forces with the brothers in a bid to defeat their magical enemies, including Black Arthur, the most feared magician of them all.

They expect there will be a cost, and they expect to be confronted by it, but they are utterly unprepared to find themselves in a magical Goblin Market dancing for demons, in a flight for their lives, and willing to kill …

Brennan has made a great gamble in telling her story through the eyes of Nick. Taciturn and violent, he's not a hero that one can feel close to. While Jamie and Mae share their fear and wonder at the world they uncover with the reader, Nick keeps them at arm's length. Alan is the only person Nick can be persuaded to care for, and to trust. And, as the reader quickly realises, gentle, learned, charismatic Alan may love his brother very much, but he certainly isn't telling him the whole truth.

While I was surprised to find a contemporary hero so resolutely unsympathetic, after the first shock it was an enjoyable change of pace. Freed from the need to identify with Nick, the reader can pay attention to him, and what is being said around him.

And very quickly it becomes clear that the novel is weaving a trap as clever as the one played out within the plot. I know that a good percentage of readers have, as I did, twigged to what some have described as the 'trick' of the book early. This is purely because it is the most logical conclusion to draw. But, knowing that trick did not in any way lessen the enjoyment of watching the plot progress to what was a genuine shock at the climax. Most impressively, the key twist is not one that relies on magical gimmickry for its effect, but one that is created out of well drawn and well realised character, leaving the reader holding their breath and hoping.

There are flaws. Witty ripostes seem to be the stock in trade for the four main characters, so that their voices are not as individualised as they could be. Even Nick, who finds words difficult and slippery, finds slick one liners relatively easy. And the mechanics of the magical world are sketched rather than fully inked; an artefact of the book size more than anything else, I would hazard a guess, and an issue that may be rectfied in the sequel.

What is beautifully realised is the physicality of the world: the tedium of living in fear, the strange exhilaration of violence, the breathless throb of a dance or a stolen kiss. Brennan's facility with language shows in her descriptions of movement, and in the voices of the least-seen characters: Merris Cromwell from the Goblin Market, the broken Olivia, the powerful Black Arthur, and Gerald, a young wizard who is very very good at pretending to be less than he is.

Above all, the fine knife-edge of knowing and not knowing is sustained until the last pages, where even the expected turns twist another way.

Whichever cover you find yourself with, I recommend picking up a copy. And if it turns out you're holding an image of a lipglossed boy with crepey neck, remove the slipcover for a classic sword image instead. I enjoyed reading it twice. The first time I was impressed and intrigued; the second I was able to appreciate just how clever and tightly constructed The Demon's Lexicon is. And, knowing his secrets, I even found myself liking Nick.
 
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Admiral of Strange Shipsnoeon on August 2nd, 2009 05:21 pm (UTC)
I need to reread it properly.

My thoughts from the first read were that I liked the dynamics between the brothers, I did think it was a mystery, but it gave away most of its secrets before the end of the first half.

Merris is a WONDERFUL character, as are Olivia and Black Arthur. You're dead right on compelling nature of the least-seen characters' voices. I found myself WISHING for the adults' version of the narrative, as it seems so much more interesting than what we actually see. I know that this is the first of three and that Nick's own development/coming to awareness is the main drama, but I wanted far more from the first installment.

Also, to be a bit grumpy, the Goblin Market? It struck me as Christina Rossetti's name on Neil Gaiman's Floating Market. If I hadn't just read Cassie Clare's Mortal Instruments trilogy, I might not have been struck by the parallels, but they are really rather surprising and also not just explicable by past H/D fandom paths. Demons and brothers, dark fathers, incapacitated/lying mothers, other worlds, frustrated/plucky junior homosexual wisecracking side characters (Okay, so Alex doesn't wisecrack, but Magnus Bane does).

I know it's unfair to Brennan to read this too heavily, and I am REALLY interested in where it goes, but it felt very familiar at points. A bit too.

As ever, though, I love her ear for angst and emotional complexity. The thoughts on Alan and his role as a child at the end were stunning, just stunning.
Sarah Rees Brennansarahtales on August 3rd, 2009 05:32 am (UTC)
I am sorry for the weird author-ly intrusion, and I thank you all very much for the kind words, but I did want to say something about the publication process for a first book. Mine was a (standard, verging on long) wait of almost two years, and obviously the book had to be conceived, written and revised before it was sent out to anyone. Demon's Lexicon was written in 2006, before I ever read City of Bones, so any rather surprising parallels would also come as a surprise to me. Plus I'm not familiar with Neil Gaiman's Floating Market, though that just has to be taken on trust. ;)
(no subject) - noeon on August 3rd, 2009 05:50 am (UTC) (Expand)
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maggiemarguerite_26 on August 2nd, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
Yay! I've been waiting for this. Excellent review.

And if it turns out you're holding an image of a lipglossed boy with crepey neck, remove the slipcover for a classic sword image instead.
Yes. It was barely out of the bag when I discovered the much nicer 'real' cover. The uk cover sounds much more appropriate, btw.

I think I will read it again, having read your review. I'm intrigued at how it would read differently understanding Nick's POV and more importantly, focusing on everything happening outside of Nick because the window at the world through his eyes was so tainted and yet I couldn't tell how it was tainted until the end. A re-read would be interesting. Particularly, Olivia who for me was very difficult to grasp until the end. She was felt like a caricature of a terrible mother, her hate of Nick almost over-played. Until it is justified.


Edited at 2009-08-02 07:33 pm (UTC)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:17 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed my reread, if you have the time, I do recommend it. For me it was like watching a film that has had a lot happening in it, the second time through you not only pick up all the 'little bits', but you can have a more expansive enjoyment of the actual plot.

And YAY for the appropriate response to that cover! What 15-year-old has a neck like that, I ask you?

I was v keen on Olivia in the end, but should hold off mentioning more in case people are reading comments without having read the book.
E McGeemelusinahp on August 2nd, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you liked it! I absolutely loved it, I'll admit.

I agree there were some areas stronger than others, but, oddly, I did identify emotionally with Nick from the outset. I have a thing for unreliable narrators, and since I was dense enough not to get the twist until it was revealed, I read Nick as stunted and self-protectively closed off instead of cold and empty.

I think his love -- his own sort of love -- for Alan was very clear in a freakishly possessive, 'I'm going to constantly tell myself that I'm just thinking this way for practical reasons' kind of way.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
You're not dense! You're nice and a compassionate reader! I am suspicious and mean, which is why I twigged ;-)

And yes, that was such a real emotion, and I enjoyed the way it was expressed a great deal.
Nienna: The Moon and the Yew Treeniennas_gift on August 2nd, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
Brennan has made a great gamble in telling her story through the eyes of Nick. Taciturn and violent, he's not a hero that one can feel close to. While Jamie and Mae share their fear and wonder at the world they uncover with the reader, Nick keeps them at arm's length. Alan is the only person Nick can be persuaded to care for, and to trust. And, as the reader quickly realises, gentle, learned, charismatic Alan may love his brother very much, but he certainly isn't telling him the whole truth.

This description alone makes me want to read it. I love it when writers make gambles.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
I think you will like it. And if you hate it, then try Frances Hardinge, who I know you will like ;-) (I have no relationship with her, but she's so tragically unfamous, when she should be known everywhere!)
glass_violet on August 2nd, 2009 11:59 pm (UTC)
I can see what you meant about the lipgloss/eyeliner issues. Hmm...can we go on a quest to purchase me a copy when I'm visiting? I fear I will be waiting forever for it to turn up in my neck of the woods!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)
Yes, we can!
camillily on August 3rd, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
And if it turns out you're holding an image of a lipglossed boy with crepey neck, remove the slipcover for a classic sword image instead.

That is exactly what I did *snickers*


blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)
Very sensible! I kept forgetting to pick up a bookmark and having to use the flyleafs. I have a UK one now, very happy!
Meredyth: MS Helpmeredyth_13 on August 3rd, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
I need to re-read it now. I refused to buy the US edition, not so much because of the cover, but because I dreaded any US modifications to the text (which they are well known for doing) although I hadn't heard of anything. I simply wanted to read it in Sarah's language entirely.

I totally agree with your review - although I will admit that I am not as clever as you, and only partially worked out the twist - I was on the right track, I just didn't see her going to that extreme with her POV character. I was surprised, and proud of how brave that was, because despite its seeming inevitability looking back, it does leave her with some interesting challenges in continuing to tell stories of these people.

I always knew it would be clever, and witty - you can't read her old fic or her rl posts and not know that it's as much a part of her as breathing. She simply can't describe the world, or how people see it and interact with each other, without finding humour or sly sarcasm - and I am the first to admit I love her for it.

Now I have to go back and read it more thoroughly - as I was busy rushing towards the big resolution and probably missed so many of the layers and telltales that you found along the way.

I will agree with one of your other commenters that I found some overlapping themes between DL and the Cassie Clare series (which I read after DL, and also, very surprisingly, loved madly). But for me they seemed more the inevitable parallels of telling urban magic stories, as the plethora of vampire novels around have parallels in lore and situation. You choose a genre and you can bend it, but you can't break it and stay within the genre. This applies I think especially for YA writers, as their target audience is looking for a particular type of fix. I think both authors managed to nail it in their own particular way.

I was ridiculously proud of/for Sarah in reading DL. Because the things that I loved about her writing in fanfic still shone in her published work - she hadn't chosen to cast that 'feel' aside, which would have been a slap in the face to my love of her previous writing. Instead I believe she has simply matured and become more polished, and for a young woman with a first published original work, I think she produced a piece that was totally appropriate to her audience and her chosen genre.

:D
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:28 pm (UTC)
Although, artifact! I was deeply upset. I love my artefacts.

I fully agree that it will be an interesting challenge for people who are not Alan to relate to Nick now, and I am eager to see how she resolves that. And I will have to try CC again; I just wanted to slap everybody the last time I tried, starting with the editor. Maybe it's just me ... probably ...
Drooling Fan Girldroolfangrrl on August 3rd, 2009 03:25 am (UTC)
What has me confused is that looks like Tom Welling on the cover.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
I KNOW! AND HE HAS A CREPEY NECK! Let us not speak of the make-up.
anna_wing on August 3rd, 2009 03:34 am (UTC)
I agree completely with you on Brennan's skill in giving personality to minor characters, it's really nice that they can give the impression of being really possible people.

I won't bore you with a rehash of my own review of the book, but among the many things I liked about it was the way it slowly worked up to the revelation that not only is this a quest story, it is not at all the quest that we think it is, and furthermore it is being told from the point of view of the quest object (you could say that it's an answer to the question, "What if Sauron's Ring could talk?").

Brennan's skill with clues is very impressive. You can tell that there is something seriously off about Alan, for instance, the minute he produces the gun, since they've been illegal in the UK for ages, so anyone who has one and knows how to use it is already on the margins of society. And all that insistence by Black Arthur et al on the emotional vacuity of demons, which is totally contradicted by Nick, who is a boiling kettle of (very badly socialised) emotion, and even by Liannan and Anzu in their interactions with Nick. Though I have to say that I actually found Nick quite sympathetic as a point of view character. But then I'm not an identifying sort of reader.

My taste in fictional portrayals of magic is slightly different from yours, I think. I don't really need to have magic fully explained in a story. "Magic system" is a concept I do not care for in fiction; real-life societies had magic systems, because they were trying to systematise their account of reality, essentially trying to do science, just on erroneous premises, but modern, post-science, fiction about magic doesn't have to. So the sketchy, evocative quality of Brennan's magical universe suited me very well. And the Goblin Market was a hilarious idea ("the beautiful poetry of Christina Risotto" indeed!).

You have my full concurrence on the horridness of the US cover. I have already ordered the UK version.

Have you read Catherine Webb/Kate Griffin?
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
I won't bore you with a rehash of my own review of the book, but among the many things I liked about it was the way it slowly worked up to the revelation that not only is this a quest story, it is not at all the quest that we think it is, and furthermore it is being told from the point of view of the quest object (you could say that it's an answer to the question, "What if Sauron's Ring could talk?").

I love that summation! That was probably the thing that first made me really sit up and take notice of the story, when I realised that Nick was essentially quite passive as far as the plot went.

Alan's gun was a big signal to me, too, but it was his facility with lying that made me wonder how far he was prepared to go. And then, he went well beyond where I expected! And yes, the demons are so like and unalike what we are told, I am eager to know more.

I would have liked more structure to the magic, even just little details such as demons being unable to cross running water, unless it's on a bridge (which is obviously the case in this world, but not always in classic demon tales). Not knowing the scope of the magicians' power made it hard for me to know the scale of their reach, beyond a basic level of undesirability.

The UK cover is much nicer; the Australian publisher was bemused that I insisted on a paperback for review at work, but I had good reason!

And alas, no, I have not read either or them. Any titles you would recommend?
(no subject) - anna_wing on August 4th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - anna_wing on August 4th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
&helena;uminohikari on August 3rd, 2009 05:34 am (UTC)
an image of a lipglossed boy with crepey neck
BEST DESCRIPTION EVER
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
You know it's true, look at it! ;-)
the center of the room and beyond: tdl - ravensnottygrrl on August 3rd, 2009 06:07 am (UTC)
interestingly, i didn't think of it like a mystery and wasn't at all thrown off. maybe because i expected it to be like the other authors Sarah hangs with. Holly's books are quite sinister as well.

and i actually liked nick quite a bit as soon as i figured out (about 1/3 to half way through) that he was somehow other. i didn't know exactly (though after the reveal i'm not sure how i missed it), but i had all the right elements guessed as to what was up with nick. alan completely surprised me though.

i really rather loved it. thanks for the great review.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
I think, too, that you're a much nicer person than I am, so you are more likely to give characters far more room to plead their case with you, just as you seem to do with people. (I am an old grump, when all is said and done, unless people are interesting, like you!)

And yes, I did warm to the idea of Nick once I worked out he was broken, but, like you, was completely surprised by the extent of Alan's tricksiness. Very happily so!

You are very welcome, sorry for the tardiness. I will have a few more to go up relatively soon!
grey_hunter on August 3rd, 2009 07:11 am (UTC)
Haven't read the stuff under the cut but really? Now I want to read that book. And also the Joan Aiken-one. And I think there's a spider sitting over my head - the things you learn thanks to drinking from narrow-necked bottles!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
I hope the spider stayed up and did not come down!

I do recommend the book, and all Joan Aiken books. I devoured her as a young girl, and want to find the one with the particular cover!
(no subject) - grey_hunter on August 3rd, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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glorafinglorafin on August 3rd, 2009 08:07 am (UTC)
I basically agree with most of what you said. My biggest regret (although it's still a very good book) is that Sarah gives very few indications about what is possible magically in this universe, which means that you can't really anticipate what could happen in the story, and it took me away from the plot at some point, as it would if I was watching a game whose rules I don't underrstand (let's say American football for instance :).

Besides, I'm not sure Nick has so many one-liners in the book. In any case, I only remember one at the very beginning (about blueberry scones). Jamie is the witty one in this, and probably my favourite character so far, with Nick a close second. :)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, that was my biggest issue, too. *Looks crossly at her probably nice and non-bossy editor*

I was surprised by just how many one-liners Nick had, from offering to sell his body to rich women if it meant he could leave school now, to asking Black Arthur if Gerald would prefer Jamie to Mae. Sometimes, like that latter, they seem in character. Other times, such as when flirting with Mae, they seemed a little too slick. But it is not a fatal quibble by any means!
shadowclubshadowclub on August 3rd, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)
Ooh, now I'm intrigued even more about this book! I have to say I like how you review books:)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
I feel sure that the cover abuse school of criticism will come into fashion any day now ;-)
Sorrel, the artist formerly known as goddessleilasorrelchestnut on August 3rd, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
Alan was the truly shocking part of the book. I was reminded very much of Supernatural- there's the brother who's obviously an asshole, and the "nice" one, who isn't as nice and has such endless ability to rationalize anything, if it was in favor of his brother. It's one of my favorite parts of Supernatural, and it worked amazingly well in this book.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 3rd, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
I watched my first ever episode of Supernatural last night, so I am astonishingly well placed to say 'YES!'

(Also, I think that many nuns, in a chapel with that many heavy objects, should have been able to take down one demon with a knife. Nuns were clearly much softer in the US than they were in South Africa and Mozambique and Tanzania. Southern African nuns in the 1970s were Hard, and made me very grateful for Henry VIII.)
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