REVIEW: Demon Forged by Meljean Brook
Dear Ms Brook:
I participated in a debate the other day on Twitter about whether Romance keeps women in a traditional social position by linking love and the nuclear family to a woman’s ultimate happiness. The Guardians series is one of those I would recommend as an example of how powerfully Romance can subvert traditional social structures and expectations while still celebrating love as a liberating force. And in Demon Forged, these themes are in play on several levels, not only between romantic protagonists Irena and Alejandro, but also in the world of the novel more generally. The nature of love, the nature of sacrifice, fate v. free will, the purpose of being – all are at issue in Demon Forged, a novel that, like the rest of the Guardians series, is dense, multi-layered, richly textured, and slightly flawed.
Irena has been a Guardian for sixteen centuries now, making her one of the oldest of their kind, and one of the most awe and fear inspiring. Her gift is that she can shape metal, and from her Siberian forge she favors making weaponry to be utilized against demons and nosferatu. Guardians, who are bound to protect human free will and keep them safe from the creatures of Hell and Chaos, are not necessarily mild and angelic, either in appearance or demeanor. Irena is particularly intimidating, her outward beauty a mask over a tumultuous personal history, one shaped and sharpened by a bargain she once made with a demon in order to save the man she loved.
Alejandro (Olek, to Irena, "the silk-tongued swordsman whose idea of honor was to die for nothing"), had the Gift of fire, and fittingly, he burns for Irena over centuries, not only in lust, but also in shame because he could not save her from the demon’s torture, could never even know fully what the demon did to her in that iron-walled room Alejandro had not managed to melt through by the time Michael teleported in to slay the demon and save Irena. Irena, who had robbed Alejandro of an honorable death by sacrificing herself, and who had walked away from him for more than two centuries right after Michael killed her torturer. Alejandro had no more understanding of what drove Irena away than he did of what the demon took from her in exchange for his life.
So when Irena and Alejandro meet again in Rome, the unresolved attraction and questions have intensified for both to the point of pain. They have been brought together to assist in hunting the nosferatu and the nephilim, an even more menacing race of creatures led by Anaria, Michael’s demonic sister, and intent on killing vampires and humans. But when the Guardians encounter the vampire Deacon in Rome, who arrives with a tale of expulsion from his nest, revelations of a larger problem are not far behind. Indeed, they begin when the group encounters a nest of nosferatu living beneath an ancient church, and in their custody is the Guardian Rosalia, who has been held to the wall with an iron spike through her head for who knows how many centuries, serving as nothing more than a feeding font for the nosferatu. Rosalia’s rescue allows her to heal physically, but it does not answer any questions about what is happening with the nosferatu and nephilim. Nor does it provide clarity about why the human wife of the demon Rael, aka Congressman Thomas Stafford, is shot and killed during a public speech in San Francisco, despite Stafford being the more obvious target.
Summarizing the plot of Demon Forged beyond this point would require the revelation of spoilers essential to the story, spoilers that reveal the revolutionary nature of this book and its role in the Guardian series (here is a link to a summary of characters and previous books, though, for anyone who needs to catch up or refresh the memory). Readers have already received quite a shock about Michael, and some of those implications are playing out in Demon Forged, such that the worlds we have seen existing in difficult but steady tension are suddenly challenged and restructured in ways that have devastating, horrifying consequences. Make no mistake: this book is dark and the pall it casts over certain characters and thematic developments will not, I expect, be dissolved anytime soon. Suffice it to say that when powerful species have drastically different views of what the world should be, power can, at least in the short run, determine the shape of a good life and an ideal world view.
Without indulging a political allegory that might be read into the book (and the series as a whole), I will say that one of my favorite things about the Guardians series is that every book has philosophical weight – there are real questions of what it means to have free will, of the nature of good and evil, and of what it means to live in accordance with one’s nature and convictions. Demon Forged is no exception, and many of these thematic threads are woven through Irena and Alejandro’s relationship, which is itself driven by the complementarity and conflict of two powerful personalities. The very first time they meet, they fight, and
Before ten seconds had passed, she’d had him laid out on the marble pavers with blood filling his mouth and his vision floating in and out of focus.
Until she’d straddled his waist and kissed him – then everything had become sharp and pointed, and devastatingly clear.
He’d still been reeling when she lifted her head and said, "When I am satisfied that your training is complete, I will take your body as I have just taken your mouth. Until that time, young Olek, there is only this. Only the fight."
Then she’d driven her dagger into his side, and chided him for letting his guard down.
It was fitting, Alejandro thought, that their only kiss had been flavored by blood and followed by pain.
Too much pain, because she’d been wrong: There hadn’t just been the fight. There had been her laugh and her temper. Her unrelenting schedule, her unexpected moments of tenderness.
And there had been the days spent in her forge, where he discovered his Gift of fire complemented her affinity with metal. Where they’d created weapons, where firelight had danced across her pale skin. Where he’d pretended to study manuscripts, but watched over the pages as Irena shaped her intricate sculptures – where he’d posed for her more than once. And he’d trained tirelessly, waiting for the moment she was satisfied.
But then the demon intervenes, and the growing trust between them is shattered, because of Alejandro’s shame that he could not save Irena or die honorably, and Irena’s shame that the demon could use her feelings for Alejandro against her so effectively. Thus, even the fighting becomes tainted:
"No." He straightened. His eyes shuttered. "I will not fight. I do not like the man I become with you."
The words stabbed her chest. Reflexively, her hands fisted. Irena held them at her sides, struggling against the fury and hurt that urged her to batter them into his face. He stared down at her, and she thought, prayed, that he might take the words back.
Olek shook his head and turned. "Your vampire friend has gone into the city."
He walked away. Irena watched, her heart hammering.
I do not like the man I become with you.
He should have hit her. She’d have known how to respond to that. But this pain, she did not.
Everything about Irena and Alejandro’s connection is intense and passionate, and the only thing holding them in check is their lack of physical proximity from each other. So when the Stafford investigation and the increased nephilim activity force them to work together directly, they cannot resist their physical and emotional draw to one another. And ironically, as the destruction around them – the threat to human security, as well as vampire and Guardian safety – increases, Irena and Alejandro grow more solid in their interdependence.
Consequently, their relationship works on the level of romantic attachment and development (as well as an incredibly sexy passion), but also thematically in service of the overarching concerns of the series. Irena, for example, is firey of nature, but Alejandro cannot completely control her, as he can the literal element. Irena can shape the hardest metals, but she cannot bend Alejandro to her will without his fully informed consent. And in the same way that the Guardians must protect human free will, each of these two must respect the will (and sometimes willfulness) of the other. And their love, even as it abides across centuries and separations, is not always a source or state of peace and comfort. As well as they understand each other, there can still be a surprise or two.
All of these are lessons not only for Irena and Alejandro, but also for the reader, as we pursue these characters through the series. The world created in these books is dynamic, challenging, imperfect, sometimes euphorically beautiful and harmonious, sometimes unforgiving and distressing. We must constantly adapt and adjust our own expectations, so that we are not simply looking forward to the romantic resolution of the main protagonists, but understanding that every relationship is a new dynamic within a complex system of competing forces and powers. As "perfect" as love may be in the ideal, it does not prevail without sacrifice, and it does not always exist in a way we might identify as good. But rather than outright demonize and idealize the her characters, Brook forces us to regard them within a multi-dimensional space where some things must work themselves out in crooked, complicated ways. It is a deeply engaging, and sometimes heartbreaking challenge for the reader.
But when it works, it’s truly amazing. The subtlety, the detail, the humor, the humanity in the writing is sometimes astonishing, just like San Francisco Police Detective Taylor’s perception of Michael:
She hadn’t expected anyone – but she really hadn’t expected him. Not the Doyen. And he was the last one she’d have wanted here. Irena might give off mob enforcer vibes, but Michael was the one who scared the crap out of her. Part of it was that he seemed to try to appear nonthreatening, like some kind of guru, but underneath that tunic were ropes of muscle and the chest of a gladiator. Did he think he could hide that? And his bare feet – they were fine, as feet went – but the point was, he obviously didn’t have to go all out with the steel-toed boots or even the soft leather stockings that Irena wore. His bare feet screamed: I could rip apart a demon and I’m not even wearing shoes.
And yet it does always work perfectly, and it’s those moments that create a certain dissonance in the reading experience, sort of like Irena’s awareness of her weapons after Michael has infused them with his own power:
Irena’s fingers wrapped around the weapons; they looked no different than before, but she felt the heat within. She vanished them, and felt their presence in her cache like a gentle burn against her tongue.
There is just so much going on in Demon Forged that sometimes I felt like I was missing things or had to re-read sections to make sure I understood what was going on at certain points in the story. I actually had to read the book twice to undertake a review, and while I feel relatively certain that I understand the main issues, the pacing seemed uneven throughout the novel, with the beginning moving quite slowly, the end galloping too quickly, and the middle shifting back and forth. For example, the pace of Alejandro and Irena’s relationship accelerates at a point in the novel where they clearly need to have a certain emotional closeness because of another plot development. But how they get there felt somewhat rushed to me. By contrast, the Deacon subplot seemed to play itself out quite slowly, even when we suspect what the truth behind his appearance is. And finally, I felt that the set up for the nephilim’s assertiveness in the story was somewhat chaotically established (and that’s not intended to be a pun on the realm), with so many interwoven sections being laid out to support that development that I could not track the novel’s logic in placing all those sections in that particular order until my second read through. None of this detracts from the novel’s complexity and the shock that it delivers to the faithful Guardians series reader, but it did interfere with the novel’s readability in ways that kept it from being a perfect read for me. Still, I have no problem giving Demon Forged a solid recommendation and a strong B.
~Janet aka Robin