REVIEW: The Demon’s Librarian by Lilith Saintcrow
Dear Ms. Saintcrow:
After I finished The Demon’s Librarian, I went to your website to see if it was part of a series. I didn’t find the answer to that question, but I did see that the book was inspired by Romance blogger and Super Librarian Wendy. I was glad that I waited until after I read the book to find this out, because I was assured that there was no added incentive to enjoy the book. The fact that I liked it was solely a function of the book itself and not any subconscious desire not to hate a book that a fellow Romance reader inspired.
Francesca “Chess” Barnes loves her position as head librarian of the Jericho City Public Library, so when she sees a hideous demon swiping children, she knows she has to do something. Stumbling upon a secret stash of books, Chess picks up some spells and fashions a magic knife, readying herself for battle with the child-eating demon. What does doesn’t realize, however, is that her demon hunting brings her to the attention of numerous other non-human beings, some of whom suspect what Chess doesn’t: that she’s much more than a human girl with a kick-ass love of her library.
One of those who knows what Chess really is, Orion “Ryan” the Drakul, has come to Jericho City with his partner, Paul, whom he protects and joins in demon hunting for a mysterious organization called The Order. Part demon and all-male, Ryan cannot believe that a petite woman like Chess could take down the child-eating demon, but as he begins to follow her he understands how special she really is. And when another demon breaks into Chess’s apartment, Ryan is there to help, fighting the demon and crashing into Chess’s world with an offer she wants to refuse: “I’ll make you a deal, librarian. You help me find my Malik and I’ll overlook your screwing around with demons. How about it?”
Ryan has misplaced his partner, Paul, who, as Malik, is part of the demon-hunting Order, and Ryan knows that if the Malik get hold of Chess they will either make a hunter of her – under their control – or a victim. And he is already too attached to the fierce librarian to let that happen. Chess, on the other hand, does not understand the magnitude of the world she’s only glimpsed, and she is understandably reluctant to agree too easily:
“I don’t think much of your Order and I think even less of you. . . . Nobody tells me what to do, and nobody’s going to try to steal my library! Where were all the rest of you when I was taking care of it? I’ve done all the work and now you want to ride in and take the credit. No, thank you!” Ryan exercises a bit of persuasion, however, and Chess reluctantly agrees to help him, throwing wide the door to a world she would never have dreamt existed within the confines of her otherwise normal-seeming city.
The Demon’s Librarian is not genre Romance (it is classified as Fantasy/Dark Fantasy at Fictionwise), in many ways it is a relationship-centered book, with the growing bond between Ryan and Chess anchoring the increasingly extreme circumstances in which Chess finds herself. The demon in Ryan is driven by a powerful need to protect Chess, and to effect that protection through a mating, while Chess is driven by a powerful need to be strong and independent. Although not a coming of age novel in the traditional sense, The Demon’s Librarian follows Chess’s path to her true nature, which is more than human, but not in a way that takes her away from her humanity or her human world. She does not struggle so much with the realities of her changing nature, but the struggles she has with others who have a stake in those changes brings her into focus as a person in new ways.
As a librarian, Chess was always possessive of “her library,” always dedicated to the dignity of books and her stewardship over their repository. She is, at the beginning of the book, strong but not hard. Her biggest problem, except for the child-eating demon, is the woman who insists the library censor every book she pulls off the shelves. She has a slightly overbearing mother, a slightly over-successful sister, and a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend who’s cheating on her. In short, she’s a normal young woman with more than normal extracurricular interests. And I liked this Chess, a woman who reminds herself that she’s fortunate she doesn’t “have to wash [her] panties in a Laundromat” and who loved old Marx Brothers movies and 80s alternative music. At one point after she fights the demon and is unable to sleep, haunted by the sense that she’s being followed by more, she has to face her own sense of vulnerability:
“I need someone to talk to,” she muttered. “Hi, how are you? I’m Chess. I hunt demons, and I’m having a total fucking nervous breakdown. Why am I acting like a… like a girl? I can handle this.”
She looked at her nightstand again. The only way she got any sleep was with the knife under her pillow and the Marx Brothers on the TV, curled up on the couch instead of in her bed. Sometimes the feeling of eyes on her was even a comfort. It helped with the crushing sense of loneliness she felt when dealing with everyday people.
One of my biggest complaints about the kick-ass heroine is that she often cannot distinguish between recklessness and bravery. Saintcrow flirts uncomfortably with that line in The Demon’s Librarian, acknowledging the danger Chess is in, the fact that she’s truly in over her head, but still allowing Chess to undertake these extraordinary contests with demons as if it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for Chess to do. As if finding this dusty old basement with all these books on demons and demon hunting, consecrating magic knives and learning different spells was all perfectly ordinary. That getting increasingly eerie phone calls in which a disembodied voice whistles her name is something to be ignored rather than investigated. There is one scene in which she is so surprised at what is occurring that she literally cannot speak, and yet ironically, Ryan was present in that scene and there to come to her aid. Of course, her silence enables a somewhat important plot element, which may account for Chess’s reaction, but that made the contrast to her earlier behavior even more evident.
And as the novel proceeds, so does Chess’s increasingly ridiculous assertion of independence from Ryan’s protective company. It is precisely at this point that Chess should be eager to embrace a little Drakul assistance that she becomes most intent on shaking Ryan off, making for a frustrating bout of adolescent rebellion in Chess’s overall character development.
It was this uncomfortable balance in Chess’s character, her inability to discern autonomy from recklessness, that registered for me as the book’s biggest flaw. Further, as she moved through the novel, Chess evolves from slightly sarcastic to quite strident, exhibiting an angry energy that didn’t seem to have a clear origin. In one of the last scenes of the book Chess is threatening people left and right in service of getting something she is desperate for at the moment, which would have been perfectly understandable if those she was threatening had made any significant move to block her path. Which they had not. The increasingly frantic energy her character exhibited worked against the kick-ass intensity for me, undermining a bit the very strengths she seemed to be developing otherwise.
That said, Chess is a smart character, and at one point, when she is in true jeopardy, she uses her smarts to wrangle her way to safety, not some magic spell or her trusty demon-killing knife. She even manages to help Ryan, again, not through supernatural means, but by quick thinking and plain old physical exertion. And as far as the relationship between Chess and Ryan goes, it is a very slow build, despite Ryan’s instinctive draw to Chess and her definite attraction to him. Chess does not understand what happens to Ryan when he insists that she not move or speak to him (he’s suppressing his natural urge to protect/mate with her), but she recognizes quickly that he will not harm her, allowing her to trust him, even if she insists on being stupid with her own freedom at several points in the novel.
Ryan’s extreme admiration of Chess – he falls in love with her while watching her dance to Oingo Boingo as she makes dinner – is touching, especially since he does not have a similar growth arc to Chess’s. Chess is definitely the center and the star of the novel, and I suspect the reader’s embrace of this book will be largely dependent on how Chess is received. Saintcrow even manages to work around the dreaded first-person narrative (I happen to like the 1st person narrator but understand many readers don’t) by including Chess and Ryan’s thoughts in italicized sections, sometimes in the middle of a conversation or description of action. This technique works very well at times, although it can be a bit distracting, especially when there is a lot going on at the conscious and internal level simultaneously. But for readers who want to see inside the heads of both protagonists, Saintcrow’s technique definitely allows for that. Which is important for Ryan, especially, since much of what he thinks is more important to the reader than what he actually says.
I also want to make a quick point about the world building in The Demon’s Librarian. There were many unfamiliar terms in the book, and rather than offer awkward explanations and/or glossaries, Saintcrow relies largely on context to explain them, sometimes a bit after they are introduced. I really, really, liked this approach, because it felt as if I had been dropped whole into another world, connecting me more directly to what was going on, even when I didn’t know the entirety of the meaning. I wish more authors would have this level of confidence in their readers and in the ability of a well-constructed fictional environment to communicate its mico and macro elements without explanatory digressions.
Ultimately, I finished The Demon’s Librarian pretty satisfied. I am thinking that it might be the first of a series, or at least it should be, given the potential entertainment in reading abut a kick-ass demon-hunting couple. As it stands, though, currently alone, I would give The Demon’s Librarian a B-.