The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

We must not look at goblin men... (Review: The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan)

The Demon's Lexicon
Sarah Rees Brennan
Simon and Schuster 2009

“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.”
(Blurb courtesy of Goodreads)

I first read this book last year on it's release and decided to take another look at it before reading the follow up, The Demon's Covenant. I am so glad I did as I had forgotten the intricacy with which it's characters are written and the sheer twistiness of the tale itself. The storytelling is really excellent, and I find it hard to believe that this is the author's debut novel as it is written with great finesse, humour and confidence. I was drawn irresistibly into Nick and Alan's bizarre world. And what a world it is. Populated by blood-thirsty magicians, manipulative demons and the innocents who get dragged into their nefarious plans, the mythology underlying the story is at once familiar and yet refreshingly different. The Goblin Market is a truly magical creation where stalls sell enchanted weaponry and hawkers peddle dark knowledge, mysterious charms and intoxicating fever fruit. All of this is written with such energy and sly grace that the imagery forms easily and the reader can effortlessly imagine trolling the stalls for goodies, guzzling the juicy fruit and dancing in circles with demons.

The characters themselves are just as intriguing as the journey that they are on. Mae and Jamie are the brother and sister who find themselves unwittingly dragged into this strange world. Mae is a particularly strong character, showing bravery and strength of spirit even when she is clearly quite terrified. She is also flawed, often speaking without thinking and sounding faintly silly when waxing lyrical about the “occult” when we first meet her. This just makes her seem very real and all the more likable for it. Jamie is more lightly drawn and I found that while he provided plenty of light relief in the form of jokes and witty asides, I wasn't sure who he really was under all the humour. Equally, I found it difficult to get under Alan's skin. He is well written as a long suffering brother who has devoted his life to protecting his family and would appear to be unerringly good, loyal and true. Yet there are hints that he may not be quite as pure as he appears, and indeed may even put others at risk to protect what is important to him. More than anything he seems terribly sad and lonely and you cannot help but feel for him, despite suspecting that hidden depths and a dark strength lie beneath his kind, crippled exterior.

However, the real triumph of the book is Nick who is unlike any other protagonist I have had the pleasure of reading through. He seems to view the world from a great distance, coolly scrutinising all he comes across as if trying to decipher a massive puzzle. He is certainly not the most empathetic character, in fact he lacks any empathy at all. Words bother him, touch bothers him and woe betide anyone who may wish him to talk about his feelings. Thus far, not an appealing prospect as a leading man... Yet, I couldn't help but sympathise with him as he tried desperately to make sense of those around him and their interactions. He is often angry and a lot of this anger seems borne out of frustration. Every now and again you realise that perhaps he is feeling compassion, fear and even love but has absolutely no idea how to articulate these feelings to himself, never mind to anyone else. His saving grace is his unswerving loyalty to Alan and his conviction that all is well with the world as long as Alan is in it and they are together. Sounds a lot like love to me.

The denouement of the novel is incredibly thrilling. I pride myself in being able to accurately predict any twists in a story, but I was completely thrown off balance by the turn this one took. Great stuff. I have to say that it works even better when you know what is coming and this is one of the rare books that I have enjoyed more on my second time round than I did on the first. I now have a copy of The Demon's Covenant in my paws, which I plan to start reading this evening. I have no doubt that it will be just fabulous. I also suspect that it may be not a little heartbreaking, because amidst the excitement of The Demon's Lexicon are moments of great sadness, tenderness and a quiet study of the ties that bind.
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