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REVIEW: The Demon’s Librarian by Lilith Saintcrow

Dear Ms. Saintcrow:

book review 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-.

~Janet

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or ebook format .

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

17 Comments

  1. Jessica
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 06:50:30

    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,

    This comment has sold me on this book. It’s something Meljean Brook does really well, too. So much better than an author spoon feeding me as if I am an infant! But it can be a thin line to walk, sometimes leaving the reader annoyed.

    Glad it is available in eformat.

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  2. cecilia
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 08:14:58

    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.

    I enjoyed reading this book, but this observation captured something that seems pretty much a constant feature of Saintcrow’s Imajinn books, which is that the male often seems underdeveloped, there to worship unquestioningly (and berate himself regularly for being unworthy), while the heroine is first oblivious (or extremely irritated) and then tolerant. This isn’t enough to turn me right off her books, but it’s something that diminishes their impact for me. Maybe it is a relationship-centered book, but after reading several of Saintcrow’s books (particularly the Imajinn “Watcher” ones), it seems like it’s the same relationship as usual, and one that seems painfully unequal.

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  3. Heather
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 08:59:39

    Thanks for the review.

    I have to admit, based on the cover, I wouldn’t even consider picking this up without knowing more about it.

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  4. Robin
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 09:54:12

    Jessica: Yes, I think the comparison to Meljean Brook is very apt. Although Saintcrow’s world isn’t nearly as complex as Brook’s, IMO, you do get the impression that there’s an overall plan and the story has merely emerged from it, rather than being a mish mas of fantasy elements that don’t really fit together.

    Cecilia: I forgot to say in the review that this is the first Saintcrow book I’ve been able to read all the way through (haven’t tried all of them, of course). If I had to read this same relationship over and over it’d be a problem for me, but I was okay with it in DL because it was so obviously Chess’s book. But I still think it is a relationship book in that most of the tensions come from relationships — Paul and Ryan, Ryan and Chess, the Malik and the demons and various other beings, etc. etc. Perhaps readers who are very hero-centric will not enjoy it, though, since Ryan doesn’t grow a great deal as a character (his growing sense of worth comes from Chess and whatever she’s feeling at the moment). I really did like the fact that he *admired* and *respected* her, though, which is something IMO we don’t see enough of in fiction centered on women.

    Heather: Because I bought this as an ebook at Fictionwise, I barely glanced at the cover. As it’s apparently now available in print, as well, the cover might be a bit more of an issue for me, b/c it is IMO MUCH darker than the book itself.

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  5. LauraJane
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 10:24:29

    This is a great review. I’m very curious about the book now, but this

    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.

    is the reason I went from absolutely loving Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine series to absolutely hating it. After finishing the 5 book series, I refused to pick up another Saintcrow book again. I’m still curious about her as an author because I thought Working for the Devil was fabulous, but her heroine was so determined to be independent, she just became off-putting and a misery to read about.

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  6. Robin
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 10:54:49

    @LauraJane: It’s strange, because in some ways Saintcrow puts a lot of faith in her readers (the world building stands on its own, for example), but in other ways she seems to shortcut her characters. re. Chess, for example, Saintcrow wants us to see her as smart (i.e. she uses her smarts to get out of danger), but it’s SO NOT SMART to be outside the protection of Ryan when she knows all kinds of evil things are out to get her. To me, a smart independent woman would know when she does and doesn’t need help, and needing help does not, IMO, undernine one’s independence.

    I know that Fantasy sometimes uses the ‘coming of age’ motif for its main characters, and certainly there is some of that here, but I need to think more about how far beyond the ‘I need to be alone’ thing Chess really gets in the book. I’m not she completes the developmental arc, although she does come to understand some important things, which satisfied me to some degree.

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  7. LauraB
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 12:01:53

    Yay! I bought this book at Fictionwise, and I was hoping it would be worth my while. Thanks for the review! I’m not as big a fan of SaintCrow’s Dante Valentine series, but I really enjoyed Steelflower.

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  8. Randi
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 12:05:39

    LauraJane: What you said. I couldn’t finish the 5th Dante book because I just wanted to bash her over the head. And I feel kind of gipped, because all of Saintcrow’s secondary characters are fantastic, her world building is great, and her writing is evocative. I just can’t get over my eventual dislike of the two main characters.

    I have dropped other series (Susannah Russe for example and just recently Kim Harrison) for this exact reason.

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  9. Chicklet
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 12:39:20

    To me, a smart independent woman would know when she does and doesn't need help, and needing help does not, IMO, undernine one's independence.

    To me, this is one of the hallmarks of the TSTL heroine: The inability to accept help from people under any circumstance. I can’t throw a punch or shoot a gun; if I were in danger, hells yeah I would let any random passing Navy SEAL take over. *g*

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  10. Robin
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 13:24:09

    LauraB: I hope you enjoy it!

    Randi: Thanks for mentioning the secondary characters, because I agree with you that she puts a decent amount of energy into creating somewhat fleshed out secondaries. Ryan’s partner, Paul, for example, was pretty well-developed, which was important for certain events later on in the book. Chess’s sister had a good role, too, which is one of the reasons I wondered if this is going to be a series.

    Chicklet: Had this been genre Romance, I would have been whacking Chess on the head repeatedly. Because I tend to see fantasy in terms of the quest and the coming of age arc, I expect a certain stage of adolescent development in the protag. However, it a) went on too long for me, b) seemed to be most useful in manufacturing more conflict, and c) Chess was supposed to be smart enough not to be stupid, if that makes sense. It’s true that Ryan was a bit overprotective, and saw Chess as more vulnerable than perhaps she was (he focuses on her physical vulnerabilities), but still, if demons were after me, I don’t care how many magic knives I had, I’d have Ryan going EVERYWHERE with me, lol.

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  11. LauraB
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 13:28:20

    @Robin: I would if I could get into Fictionwise to download it. What is going on over there?

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  12. Robin
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 13:34:55

    @LauraB: I was having big problems on Wed, and others have reported delays this week. Maybe transition re. B&N? Don’t know, but I kept trying and eventually got in.

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  13. Jennifer Estep
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 14:02:43

    I’ve enjoyed the titles I’ve read in Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine series. I’m curious — is this one more fantasy or sci-fi?

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  14. FD
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 14:03:35

    I agree this felt similar to the Watcher books, and overall, I liked this one better.
    (With the caveat that despite the arbitrary value judgement of ‘better’, I’ve still reread the Watcher series multiple times.)

    @ Cecila – I had the exact same issue with them that you did – Mindhealer was the best of the five, IMO, as her reactions were at least emotionally logical and her tstl moment was mercifully brief and easily forgivable under the circumstances.

    The failure to think or ask questions at several key points annoyed me immensely – she’s a librarian, argh, it’s what they do – sort through and logically order things! That’s one of the biggest failings of the irrationally independent heroine, as far as I’m concerned.

    Other than that, I thought Chess was awesome, and I was glad she saved the day, which was a something that irked me in the both the Watcher books and the Valentine series.

    For people who liked this but had the same problems with the reviewer, (and me) and Cecila re the hero / heroine disparity, I’d recommend Steelflower (which is straight S&S fantasy) and very cool, (as a word of warning though, feels a lot like the first book of a series, except there isn’t a series, so far) and the Jill Kismet books, of which there are two so far, Night Shift & Hunter’s Prayer, with a third Redemption Alley coming out in August.

    @Jennifer – this one is fantasy IMO.

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  15. LauraJane
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 15:58:20

    To me, a smart independent woman would know when she does and doesn't need help, and needing help does not, IMO, undernine one's independence.

    Exactly.

    I couldn't finish the 5th Dante book because I just wanted to bash her over the head. And I feel kind of gipped, because all of Saintcrow's secondary characters are fantastic, her world building is great, and her writing is evocative. I just can't get over my eventual dislike of the two main characters.
    I have dropped other series (Susannah Russe for example and just recently Kim Harrison) for this exact reason.

    I loved her secondary characters, especially the “vampires.” (I think I’d read a new Saintcrow series about her vampires.) And, yeah, her writing is wonderful. So is her worldbuilding. But I was angry with Dante’s lack of growth and I was angry that I couldn’t continue to love Japhrimel because I couldn’t respect a man/demon who still loved Dante. Sorry to hear about the Susannah Russe, Randi, since I own that series and it’s still waiting to be read.

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  16. kathybaug
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 21:14:06

    re: the Dante Valentine series. I understand what you all are saying about being annoyed with Dante, but by the end of the series I was pretty pissed at Japhrimel, too. He never explained ANYTHING. It was always, “If you would just trust me, Dante”, then he would disappear and Dante was left to deal with whatever happened, with no real understanding of what would be the best action to take. Me, I like explanations for why and what someone wants me to do.

    However, I did really like Saintcrow’s writing so I decided to give her new series, Jill Kismet, a try, and I like these books much better. I also have the Demon’s Librarian on my TX to read sometime, although I don’t know when that wil be. (My TBR pile, paper and ebooks is enormous!)

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  17. an
    Apr 04, 2009 @ 14:51:18

    I understand what you all are saying about being annoyed with Dante, but by the end of the series I was pretty pissed at Japhrimel, too. He never explained ANYTHING. It was always, “If you would just trust me, Dante”, then he would disappear and Dante was left to deal with whatever happened, with no real understanding of what would be the best action to take.

    I’ve read Saintcrow’s Valentine and Kismet books and loved them, but I think this discussion is so funny because I loved that Japh is such a dick and inscrutable. It was a large part of what sucked me into the series. I thought that it was a lot more believable for Japh to be terrible at communicating and understanding Dante than for him to turn into a big fluffy bunny like some demon heroes do.

    I mean really, if you’ve been a powerful and evil demon for centuries upon centuries, no amount of magical hoohaa is going to make you into a sexy Mr. Rogers.

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