Demon Angel, by Meljean Brook

>> Monday, January 15, 2007

Ok, I'm embarrassed. You know how long I've had my e-ARC of Meljean Brook's Demon Angel (excerpt)? Over two full months. Yep, Meljean sent it to me on November 7th, after a wonderful person mentioned to her that I'd said it was one of the three 2007 books I would have sold my soul to get an ARC of (hey, that's kind of appropriate, come to think of it!). So I got it, loaded it on my ebookwise, and then couldn't start reading it until around the New Year. That was basically because that was around the time I started preparing my application for the scholarship, which I needed to hand in in late December, and this didn't seem like a book I should read while distracted (everyone seemed to agree that it was a no-skimming-allowed kind of book), but it's still pretty embarrassing.

BTW, I did finish it in very early January, but it's taken me a while to actually write this review. Rave reviews are just so hard to write! You want a review that reflects just how amazing the book is, one that is worthy of it, I guess. I don't think I really succeeded at this below, but well, here goes.

For two thousand years, Lilith wrought vengeance upon the evil and the damned, gathering souls for her father's armies Below and proving her fealty to her Underworld liege. Bound by a bargain with the devil and forbidden to feel pleasure, she draws upon her dark powers and serpentine grace to lead men into temptation. That is, until she faces her greatest temptation-Heaven's own Sir Hugh Castleford...

Once a knight and now a Guardian, Hugh spent centuries battling demons-and the cursed, blood-drinking nosferatu. His purpose has always been to thwart the demon Lilith, even as he battles his treacherous hunger for her. But when a deadly alliance unleashes a threat to both humans and Guardians in modern-day San Francisco, angel and demon must fight together against unholy evil-and against a desire that has been too long denied...
When I just looked back at Meljean's email to see (to my shame) when exactly she'd sent this to me, I noticed that she wrote if you get past Part One I promise it gets better! To which I answer: Are you kidding me?. Part One, Part Two, I loved each just as much. Demon Angel has an tremendously compelling romance, fascinating characters and an intrincately built world... in both parts! An A-.

The famous Part One has Hugh and Lilith meeting for the first time in England in the 13th century. At the time, Hugh is still a chivalrous young knight and Lilith is a demon whose current mission includes manipulating Hugh into dying in such a way that his soul will be damned to Hell. However, an unlikely attraction develops between the two, because wicked Lilith isn't evil, and in Hugh's case, honour and goodness aren't accompanied by priggishness or lack of a sense of humour.

So, when the time comes that Lilith has manipulated and deceived Hugh right to the edge of his death, she can't quite follow through with her original intentions, and events result in her allowing Hugh to be turned into a Guardian, becoming part of a group created by the angels to protect humans from demons and other supernatural evils. Like demons, Guardians can't directly hurt humans or interfere with their free will, but they do their best to keep the demons' manipulations from making humans die and go to Hell.

And so Part One follows Hugh and Lilith through the centuries, showing us how this complex relationship we saw start in the 13th century develops through the next 800 years. Until, that is, in the early 1990s Hugh experiences a huge crisis with his role as a Guardian and feels the need to "Fall", that is, go back to being human again, something Guardians are allowed to do at any time. But before he does, Hugh makes a last-ditch attempt to free Lilith from Lucifer's influence, an attempt he believes succeeded.

This part was fantastic for so many reasons. I usually get pissed off if an author takes too long to get to the real meat of the story. I'm willing to read stories like this from very few people, and even for them, I merely tolerate those prologues, all the while wishing the story had been written differently, maybe through flashbacks, or with the backstory interwoven through the main story (case in point, quite a few Nora Roberts books, including Blue Smoke, which I ended up loving anyway).

With Demon Angel, it was nothing like that. I didn't read Part One impatiently, wishing we'd get to the real story already, maybe because Part One was just as much "meat" as Part Two, as far as I'm concerned. It was powerful, fascinating stuff, and this was where the basis for Lilith and Hugh's love was built. Part One was also where I first understood just how huge and powerful this love was.

By the time Hugh and Lilith meet again in Part Two, some 16 years have passed. Hugh is now a wholy human university professor in San Francisco, and has gathered a family of sorts around him, while Lilith is using the cover of an FBI agent, and is closer to human than she ever was since she was turned thousands of years earlier, because Lucifer has punished her by taking some powers from her.

I don't want to give too much away, but the plot here involves nosferatu, who are fallen angels, just like the demons, but who didn't take sides on the original battle between Lucifer's demons and God's angels. They are ordinarily hunted by both of these groups, only now something appears to have changed, because there seems to be some kind of agreement between nosferatu and demons, and soon Hugh and Lilith begin to suspect that this plan may feature Hugh's death and the loss of his soul.

So these two will have to work together to get to the bottom of all this, uncovering the plot and beating Lucifer and the Nosferatu at their own game. But for Hugh, it's just as important to figure out a way to keep Lilith and her soul out of Lucifer's clutches, and for Lilith, to keep Hugh from sacrificing himself to do it.

As much as I loved, loved, loved the world-building (more on this later), what made me fall in love with this book completely was the characters. Hugh and Lilith are unlike any characters I've ever read, Lilith especially. She's amazing, strong, intelligent and willing to do what's necessary, whatever the costs to her. I loved the way that even at her most demon-ish her humanity just shone through, and not in a way that made her seem weak, either.

Hugh is my favourite type of character, a kind, honourable, good man, with a will of iron, but Hugh is just more so than anyone else I've read. My favourite thing about him, though, is the way he acts with Lilith, the humour with which he takes everything she does, and they way that, even though he is desperate to save her, he doesn't try to dominate her (with one wonderful, sexy exception!) or change her in any way. He loves her the way she is, even with metaphorical or even physical horns, and there's nothing sexier than that, IMO.

Which brings me to how scorching hot this book is. Even the banter between them sizzles, and when they actually get physical, oh, my. It's not a matter of the book being especially explicit or pushing envelopes with regards to sexual content, it's all about the intensity of the feelings involved and the way these two react to each other, which reveals even more about their characters. I confess I even went back and reread those scenes as soon as I finished them, they were so hot ;-)

I'm going to leave this here, because there's just no way I can explain the complexities of these characters and their feelings for each other. This is where the wonderfulness of the characterization really hits me, when I realize I can't very well write down all the subtleties and little details that made them such amazingly real characters, because otherwise this review will end up being as long as the book . Let me just say that Lilith and Hugh's was a love I fully believed in, one that I thought merited the sacrifices each was willing to make for the other, and that as fucked up as both are, even at the end of the book, I had no doubts whatsoever that they would be happy together.

Ok, moving on to extra-character territory now, let me talk a bit about the world building. This was very impressive. This is the kind of book where you realize the author didn't just slap together a few details to drive the plot (the "hmm, how do I make my characters do X? Oh, I know, in this world, things will work in such and such a way" school of worldbuilding, which results in contradictory, nonsensical worlds). It's clear there's a fully-formed world existing in Brook's mind, and that though we get only what's relevant to the story that's being told, the author has a million other (so far) irrelevant details figured out already. This results in a dense, believable world, one in which everything hangs together.
And it's all so interesting and original! Nothing feels recycled, and even the elements I have seen before are given a different twist.

What I loved best about Brook's writing style was what made this a slow, satisfying book to read. The author trusts her readers to be smart enough to get things. She doesn't explain stuff again and again and again, just gives enough information for us to figure everything out. You have to pay attention, though, because there are no infodumps here, where you can get all your info together in one convenient go, and then go back to skimming. Things are revealed slowly and gradually. This is very definitely a no-skimming book. Not that I ever felt the urge, to be honest. As long and dense as the book is, it's not one you want to end. Even the love scenes, I went word by word, because every single word counted.

Also very impressive was the ending. When you start a romance novel, you already know there's going to be a HEA ending. It takes a talented author to make you doubt. This is what happened to me with Demon Angel: the whole situation was so impossible, so seemingly unsolvable, that a part to me began to have doubts. Oh, not the rational part, of course. The rational part kept telling that other, very emotional part of my brain to calm down, this was a romance novel, there would be a way out. But that emotional part still doubted, even as it nodded and said Ok, I believe you.

The best thing about this ending was that it came from the characters, fit who they were completely. There's no deus ex machina cop-out here. Neither Lilith nor Hugh suddenly realize one of them has a new power her or she knew nothing about, and can defeat Lucifer with it, Michael doesn't suddenly remember this obscure rule that lets them off the hook, God doesn't suddenly appear to spank Lucifer (which just might fly in this particular book). Something like this would have cheapened the suffering both these characters had endured, so I'm glad it didn't go in such a way.

What happens (and I'm going to try very hard not to give any spoilers here, even as I try to convey the flavour of the ending) is that everyone behaves in character, in ways in which it was predictable that they would behave, given the circumstances, and that these circumstances are manipulated by our guys in such a way that they win. And they are manipulated in ways that are in character for the manipulators, too. Hugh acts like Hugh, Lilith acts like Lilith and Lucifer, Michael and the nosferatu act like Lucifer, Michael and the nosferatu. And the result is a conclusion that felt right, one that made me think I should have imagined that was the only way out. Just perfect!

The most common criticism I've seen of this book is about the pacing, that it's slow in some parts and drags a bit. Not for me, I just didn't notice anything like that. Maybe it was because of the way I read it, because not only did it take me a while to start the book, it took me a few days to actually read through it, for reasons completely outside the book. I was really on the go those few days, and I couldn't take the ebookwise everywhere where I was going, so the way I was able to read Demon Angel was an hour or so every evening. And so all I can say is that each of those hours flew and that every time I had to put the book down I wanted nothing more than to keep reading a couple of hours longer. I was even very tempted to read it on the computer at work, and if work had been a bit slower, I might have!

The one thing I'd classify as a negative, and which makes me give this an A- and not a higher grade (yes, the rest is good enough for an A, or even an A+), was that a couple of times I got a bit lost, even with my no-skimming policy. For a while, I was somewhat hazy on just what the nosferatu were planning and who was trying to screw whom and in what ways. Fortunately, I just kept on reading and I was perfectly able to follow the action, but some details I never did get, and those stretches I read with my head spinning were a bit much.

Now I officially can't wait for Colin's book. June can't come soon enough. Meanwhile, I'll be rereading Falling For Anthony. It will be interesting to look at Hugh and Lilith there with new eyes. Oh, and BTW, I was very tickled to see that Lilith thinks that Emily (heroine of FFA) is a spoiled brat. Even in that Meljean is original! Isn't everyone who's not eeeeevil supposed to love every one of the heroines? And aren't all of an author's heroines supposed to be bestest friends? ;-)

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