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Sunday, November 15, 2009

review: The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

Demons Trilogy #1:
The Demon's Lexicon
by Sarah Rees Brennan

Nick and his brother, Alan, have spent their lives on the run from magic. Their father was murdered, and their mother was driven mad by magicians and the demons who give them power. The magicians are hunting the Ryves family for a charm that Nick's mother stole -- a charm that keeps her alive -- and they want it badly enough to kill again.
Danger draws even closer when a brother and sister come to the Ryves family for help. The boy wears a demon's mark, a sign of death that almost nothing can erase...and when Alan also gets marked by a demon, Nick is des-perate to save him. The only way to do that is to kill one of the magicians they have been hiding from for so long.
Ensnared in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Nick starts to suspect that his brother is telling him lie after lie about their past. As the magicians' Circle closes in on their family, Nick uncovers the secret that could destroy them all.
This is the Demon's Lexicon. Turn the page.

young adult fiction ; urban fantasy { genre
PG for mild violence { rating
June 2, 2009 { first released
Margaret K. McElderry hardcover (336 pages) { review edition
borrowed { acquisition ; ; IndieBound ; Book Depository { purchase links

Why I Read This
I had really enjoyed the author's HP fanfiction where she proved she could mix humor, plot, and romance really nicely together. So, by recommendation of (once again) GAL Novelty, I had gotten really hyped up about her first original novel. The teasers posted to her livejournal account contributed to my anticipation just as much, and I really really liked Jamie from the excerpts. I have to say I started out wanting to read this for the brothers, but ended up reading it for Jamie ♥

First Lines
The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.

Overall Rating

Though I found some of the characters compelling and original, the author's world-building and writing was strained and felt incomplete. The characters were constantly in danger of losing consistency, and some of the twists and turns thus were mildly confusing. However, it was a fun read, with plenty of hilariously snappy dialogue.

review posted to AmazonCA, Book Depository, goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari


The way the author dealt with some of the mythology was quite interesting. Magicians are born with a small amount of power, and most lust for more, no matter the sacrifices and costs, so they make pacts with demons. The demons agree to these deals because the realm they are trapped in most of the time does not allow them to "feel", thus they wish to escape into the human world for however mere moments of sensation. Theoretically this is pretty interesting stuff, but practically it makes for a very underdeveloped world with only the bare bones of structure.
The author tries to mesh together a whole bunch of concepts like the iconic Goblin Market (which I'm not sure if she's trying to subvert the original or just borrow a few lines from it without doing thorough research), demon lore, and "old sayings" (ex. "third time's the charm"). I found myself questioning a lot of the plausibility and consistency of the "rules" of her world (ex. if the lights went out, why don't the magicians just call up orbs of light instead of panicking? what counts as running water, just the lake/sea, or tap water as well? if a demon left a human body, is it still the demon's to return to?). As I said before, I really wished the author could have done more research with some of the ideas she used, such as the part where she made it out that pulling someone's neck back would expose their veins more. It is actually the opposite: the muscles in a stretched neck actually serve to protect the major blood vessels and it would be much more effective to slit someone's throat if you push their head forward to force the muscles to the back of the neck.
The "mystery" aspect was also rather anti-climatic and insanely implausible (especially Alan's "big plan"). It was like she was trying too hard to tie everything together and just ended up with a very messy knot. I also guessed the "big secret" about Nick after about the first chapter, so uncovering it at the end was rather less enjoyable than it could have been (perhaps it was an excess of foreshadowing, aka Nick profusely whining about himself). There were also times where the pacing started fluctuating really awkwardly and we have the characters saying they'll do stuff "the next day", even though they are being hunted and in quite a lot of danger.


I found that lack of character motivation is a very big problem in this book. A lot of the characters' actions seem to be there as added dramatic effect or plot devices rather than something the reader can identify with their personality.
Nick is sort of an obnoxious asshole and is rather hard to sympathize with, even though towards the end we understand why. We get from the very beginning that he is not normal (the dyslexia touch was great), and he does not think like everyone else does, but it's still hard to cheer him on when he's treating everyone like trash. However, he does seem doggedly determined to keep his brother - the only person he has left in the world he trusts - alive, no matter what sacrifices have to be made, be it other people, their crazy mother, or even himself. I did like the portrayal of the constant struggle Alan has with trying to make him "feel" more, and "care" about the things around him. And more often than not, we see Nick trying to do these things other people expect him to do, but not really understanding why, and not caring as long as he gets the results he wants.
Alan on the other hand, while "kind/generous" and "easily hurt", was a lot less relateable than I had expected. Since Nick is the narrator, Alan is always referred to as a "liar" or up to "mysterious things" while he is away. There was a lot of confusion in the logistics of his Master Plan, and I found it really annoying that his persona seemed to change every other chapter, which potentially negates everything he ever did or said. His cripple seems conveniently reactive, sometimes dramatically hindering him while other times seemingly non-existent. Nick's adoration for his brother also serves to mystify Alan's true image through all the praise and forgiveness. hard to like or dislike. I'm kind of undecidedly neutral about her. As the only girl in the main cast, I would've liked it if she played a greater role than token girl and love interest. Oftentimes it seems like Mae is the ultimate Mary Sue. Nick rants on multiple occasions about how she was so "unlike other girls" and then proceeds to list out the ways she fascinates him. Alan is also portrayed as absolutely smitten with her, going to great lengths to impress her and risk his own life while doing so. It's almost like she is the personification of qualities the author considers most men (both strong-silent Nick and kind-bookworm Alan) would want in a girl. Still, being an older sister myself, I couldn't hate her when she's so protective of Jamie, and I really like the fluffy little moments the siblings share.
In every book, there are characters that serve as the proxies for exposition, in this book it was Jamie and Mae. While I usually hate these characters for their obvious uselessness outside of getting the knowing characters to explain the world to them, the author handles it very well with the lovable Jamie. He is comfortably gay, adorably timid, and infinitely brimming with witty jokes. There is very little exploration of his love life considering the situation, but I had thought that Jamie is one of few fictional teenagers I've ever seen so very comfortable in his own skin - of course, the author manages to completely undermine this amazing quality at the end of the book. A favourite quote of mine had been him saying, "I thought that I usually look like what I really am." His backstory was very touching in its simplicity, of someone just trying to live his life "out of the way" of others, out of a mix of foolish consideration and fear. This still holds true in a way no matter what the author revealed in the last few chapters, but I felt extremely betrayed by the completely hypocritical approach to Jamie's truthfulness about himself. That said, I would still read the next book to see the next arc for this great character.


The dialogue is the most attractive part of this book. It is incredibly witty most of the time and I laughed out loud more than once - it reflects the humor I loved in her HP work as well. However, I must say some of the writing bothered me, specifically the descriptive narration. While sometimes it flows rather nicely, other times I get frustrated with seeing the same adjectives or nouns used repeatedly in the same paragraph at awkward junctures. There are as well some jarring inserts of character histories littered throughout, as well as characters' emotional states fluctuating incredibly fast within a single scene (ex. scared one moment, incredibly calm the next). It was also frustrating to see an abundance of vague phrases that amount to no real meaning when describing the characters' expressions and gestures.
It seemed like the author was trying too hard to make every other line an insta-quote or t-shirt slogan, using massive exaggerations and awkward metahpors. For example, at one point, Nick says that Mae "had an unsettling crying habit, but she was pure steel" but as far as I know she only cried once before this point in the story, nowhere near enough to make it a habit. Perhaps it was intended to help with the juxtaposition of her "weak" and "strong" sides, but I found this strategy a bit frustrating.
That said, this book is still an enjoyable read, the characters can carry most of the story well enough through their dialogue, while the less impressive descriptions can be countered with the reader's own imagination.


It still turned out to be a save the world thing, though to a less direct extent. It was a bit rushed and not fully explained, using the theme of "chaos" as cover. As I had said I already figured out the Big Secret near the first few chapters so it felt rather mediocre to me, and Nick's "calmness" was rather unhelpful in hyping up the audience. A lot of the logistics are rather glossed over in favor of ending the battle, and the very last scene was a bit melodramatic rather than appropriately conclusive. Nick's change of heart (from "I must leave" to "I will definitely stay") was very jarring, though I guess it sort of sums up Nick and Alan's entire relationship. The only reason I'm excited for the next book (only barely) is the promise of more development in Jamie's character arc.

Demons Trilogy
#1 The Demon's Lexicon (2009)
#2 The Demon's Covenant (2010)

Reading Challenges
1st in Series Challenge 2009 → Demons Trilogy
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