The Devil’s Only Friend by Dan Wells

The Devil's Only Friend.jpgJohn Wayne Cleaver is back and he’s still hunting demons, this time he has a government agency at his back. Or is that on his back?

John has a team that hunts demons with him and they all have a list of secrets that make them ideal members of a hidden agency. However John chafes at their involvement. He plans and orchestrates how to kill each demon but isn’t allowed to participate in the action because he’s a teenager.

On top of that they have found a town where there are several demons living and one of them seems to be hunting John and his team in turn.

This book opens up the world that seemed so isolated in the previous three John Cleaver books. The world is larger and the demons themselves are expanded on so that we can see a bit of where they come from and who they are.

Dan Wells has grown a lot since those early books. He’s become a master of emotional ties and twists that turn in the gut.

John Wayne Cleaver is a sociopathic teenager who has been rendered sympathetic through the magic of literary depiction. John struggles with his personality. He wants to murder things and kill things. He feels a need to do so. However, he knows that it is wrong so he builds rules and patterns in his life to keep himself away from temptations. Unfortunately events are once again about to spiral out of control and John may have to turn himself loose in order to save himself and the people around him.

John’s friend Brooke is there but she has been driven insane by the stored memories of Nobody, the demon that formerly possessed her. Brooke tries to remember things for them but her memories are frequently colored by centuries of possessions and depression. John feels partly guilty for the state she’s in.

The story here is fascinating and emotionally powerful. It is also terrifying, but not because of horror elements. The fear comes from John. He knows how closely he has to monitor himself in order to be a good person and when that starts to fall apart it becomes more scary on a personal level than anything else could have been.

If John loses control then he is lost. Those stakes are far higher than being murdered or possessed or hunted by millenia-old demons.

I really liked this book and found it to be even better than I had hoped. If you haven’t read the previous books in this series this is a good place to start.


Ruins by Dan Wells

Ruins by Dan WellsThe covers for these books are probably the most unimaginative covers possible. If I wasn’t a fan of Dan Wells I never would have read these books.

Ruins is a good end to this trilogy. It’s more gruesome and violent and filled with more drastic decisions. Kira and her friends are faced with the world ending again as the Partials invade the human settlement on Long Island in a hope of finding the expiration that they are all rapidly approaching and the humans retaliate with unmitigated force as they face another kind of extinction themselves.

Kira has discovered the cure for both their problems but she just has to make somebody listen to her before they kill each other.

This is an exciting novel and a good end for the trilogy with a satisfying conclusion. Dan Wells throws some horror elements into this book, some of them gruesome and others terrifying and that is where Dan Wells shines. He is always at his best when he’s scaring the reader into having nightmares.

The relationships are not quite as believable. There’s not enough emotion and too much talking about it to feel real.

There isn’t much more to say. This is the conclusion of a trilogy and Wells mostly sticks the landing. There are some frustrating characters that make some unfortunate choices and there are some wonderful characters that keep the book interesting and entertaining to the end.

I liked this series. It had a good premise that builds some tension right form the start. Dan Wells taught me in the first book that medical lab work could be tense and in this book he taught me about character choices.

My biggest peeve with this book, though, is the magic of genetics. In the second book the use of computers was so outside the realm of how computers work that it was completely unbelievable. This book has characters doing genetics to change the weather and create diseases and heal themselves and live in toxic wastelands and breathe underwater and kill the human race and make people live only eighteen years and eventually it felt like magic rather than science. There was a team of geneticists that can do pretty much anything they want, and in a very short period of time (a few months) and it continually popped the balloon from which I had suspended my disbelief. After falling enough times I gave up and stayed on the ground.

The tension is real, though, and this wraps up a series that I have enjoyed reading.

Fragments by Dan Wells

Fragments by Dan WellsLet me just start by saying that if this wasn’t written by Dan Wells I likely would never have picked it up. The cover is possibly the least interesting book cover I have ever seen. Luckily, I was able to get past that.

I feel like there are certain things that Dan Wells does really well and things that he is only mediocre at. His settings never feel fully realized. It’s almost like the places he describes are only partially there, like the distance is shrouded in that mistiness that video game designers use when your computer doesn’t have enough memory to show the horizon. When he is describing real cities like in much of this book the setting feels like a place that he drove through or visited once, or even worse looked up on a map.

With that out of the way I can talk about what Dan Wells is good at. He is good at atmosphere, terror and mystery.

Fragments picks up where Partials left off with a world broken by disease and war. Kira is trying desperately to find a cure that will save the human race from the disease that is slowly killing them and hopes to discover the secrets to her own past at the same time.

Kira is no different from most teenage literary protagonists in that she wants to figure out where she fits what she is and why she is there. These are universal questions which is part of the reason they are used in young adult fiction so much.

Dan Wells channels the atmosphere of desolation and destruction remarkably well. The world feels like our world after it has been rapidly depopulated. The part of me that loves ghost towns longs to look into this world, to explore the ruins of our civilization. The emptiness and the danger are real but I couldn’t help but wonder if the fortuitous use of canned food in this society twelve years after the apocalypse is realistic. How many cans of tuna re still good twelve years later? Probably a surprising number but it made me wonder every time they stopped and ate some tuna — also carrying cans across the desolated midwest sounds like a very bad idea. The degradation of gasoline over time is treated realistically but the characters are still able to find rope in hardware stores and long abandoned computers start working as soon as they are supplied power.

I’m not even sure how realistic that is. I have computers that I have put away in storage and fired them up and they work great six or seven years later. Theoretically, if nothing happens to them, then they should still work. I also know that modern data farms go through an unseemly number of hard drives every day due to mechanical failure. They are constantly building in redundancies and swapping out parts because when you have a million processors and hundreds of thousands of hard drives, chances are one of them is going bad right now. I feel dubious that turning on power to a data farm twelve years after it died that the entire things would work without some kind of maintenance. (Almost all the uses of technology in this book are problematic, unrealistic and sometimes jarringly misunderstood but I’m trying to get past that.)

That’s probably the least unrealistic part of the book because Kira and company traverse most of the breadth of the continent on horses in a barren wasteland with no food or water and the only rain falls as acid that burns and scorches the skin and poisons and kills everything. The midwest United States is not populated enough to find shelter every day, it just isn’t. I’m not even convinced you would want to do it with a car under those circumstances.

Leaving aside the fairly naive discussions of computers and networking usage, and the impossibleness of the journey Dan Wells is great at telling a story that is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Some of the action scenes and moments of tension are the best I’ve seen in quite some time.

That’s because these are the areas in which Dan Wells excels. Atmosphere, terror and mystery. The mystery in the book is intriguing, if a little bit of a letdown upon discovery, and drives almost all of the plot. The terror both long term and short term feel real and powerful. This is a delicate act to pull off. Dan Wells expertly builds a world that is so completely broken that even living in it is terrifying — the future is bleak, possibly nonexistent — and the he fills in the moments with bits of real tension and fantastical action set pieces.

I’ve begun to feel that Dan Wells hasn’t improved as much in his skills over the course of his novels as I would have expected. Many of his weaknesses still remain. I find with each novel my desire to read the next one decreases just a little. Here’s hoping I like the next one more.

The Hollow City by Dan Wells

The Hollow City by Dan WellsI do not love this book as much I would like to. It’s not solely to do with the contents of the book, or rather it is, just not in the way it sounds. Dan Wells made a name for himself by writing a series of books about a teenage sociopath who uses his emotional disconnect with people to hunt down monsters that are stalking his home town. They’re good books and more than a little terrifying. With The Hollow City Dan Wells is exploring the disability of schizophrenia the same way. I worry that he will be perceived as the guy who writes about psychological disorders.

He has written other things, so maybe I worry in vain.

The Hollow City is nowhere near as bloody and downright terrifying as the Serial Killer books were. Those books left me almost physically drained from stress after reading them. The Hollow City is more of an exploration on what it is to be schizophrenic with so much misdirection and unreliable narration that as the reader I began to question what is real. How much of life is just our color of experience and how much really happens. It’s only a mildly interesting philosophical debate for somebody who is at least somewhere within the bell curve that we’ve chosen to define as normal. For a person who experiences people and things that do not actually exist to anybody else the question gains a striking poignancy.

This book is tremendously short and a very fast read but it also takes a while to simmer into motion. The first two thirds of the book are an interesting tale told from the point of view of a schizophrenic man trying to come to terms with his reality and gain back a normal life. For the last third things kick off in high gear and go from mysterious to weird to just plain… plain. I guess that is the best word for it. The ending holds the dubious honor of being unexpected, inevitable — given the condition of the narrator and events leading up to it –, and shockingly disappointing at the same time.

I’m afraid to say anything else in detail since much of this book depends on revealing secrets and mysteries — two of which are given away in the jacket blurb.

I can say that I enjoyed the book, right up until the ending. The ending left me feeling incomplete, like toast without the butter or pizza without the cheese. I thought it needed something more but at the same time there isn’t more to give. Dan Wells kept me reading straight through and I found the point of view fascinating and the confusion and existential dilemma to be very present and real. The mystery and the twists in the plot were exquisitely done.

The one problem I noticed with this book was that the setting never felt real. I’ve noticed this in Dan Wells books before. Everything seems to have a feeling of blank white room about it so that even when wandering through a city it feels empty like the buildings and people only exist within the sight of the main character but the rest of the world fades to grey. I think this comes from the sparse prose style that Dan Wells uses. He doesn’t dwell very much on setting and scenery and thus it feels transparent, like a hologram. I can’t decide if that’s on purpose or not. I noticed it a little bit in the Serial Killer books but in Partials the setting and scenery seemed to be fully imagined and very concrete. Perhaps the illusion of emptiness is part of the main characters disorder or maybe it’s part of the stark and illusory feel of the book. If it is on purpose then it is excellently done at building a sense of traversing through an imagined realm, a hollow city, if you will.

I would recommend Dan Wells to anybody who hasn’t read his work before. If you have then you don’t need the recommendation.

Partials by Dan Wells

12476820Partials is a powerful post apocalyptic drama about life and what one might be willing to do to save it. It is brilliantly written and told with the kind of heart breaking tension that only a parent could appreciate, with a few minor aberrations to mar its apparent perfection.

Fourteen years ago ParaGen created an army of genetic soldiers, called Partials, to fight wars for the United States. They quickly won the Partials War and came home and rebelled, unleashing a virus that wiped out the entire human population. So virulent that it caused nearly instant death, the virus struck down the entire world until only a few thousand people survived, somehow immune to the virus. However, their children are not. For fourteen years not a single infant has lived more than fifty six hours. The human race is running out of gas.

This is where Kira comes in, she is a trained nurse in the maternity ward of the hospital where the survivors have banded together. Every day she watches mothers giving birth, hopeful that theirs will be the one that lives. Every day she watches infants struggle to live and then collapse and die from the virus.

Kira vows to change things and then goes about doing just that.

This is a strict departure from Dan Wells’s former style. There is little of the horror sensibility that his John Cleaver books had but I think this is a much stronger book than those ones were. For one thing, nobody does dark like Dan Wells. This is a future that is bleak and horrifying and astonishingly gripping. The prose is much improved. Dan Wells has always been eminently readable but this book passes into another, even deeper layer (that’s exactly like the first one).

There are a lot of characters, but they are all distinct and diverse and have a variety of skills. The characters never got confusing and their actions were always reasonable.

I have three complaints. One is incredibly minor.

I’m kind of tired of the kind of story where the protagonist is the only person in her society who sees something wrong with what is going on and is willing to do something about it. It’s sort of a trope that has been played ad nauseum. However, that very quality about them is what makes them a protagonist instead of a sidekick so it’s kind of inevitable.

The other two complaints are about things that happened at the end. I’ll try to explain without spoiling anything.

First there is an event toward the end of the book where Kira discovers something about herself. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a great surprise and really shocking — if I say any more I’ll give it away — but it really wasn’t. The reason for that was because earlier in the book Kira does something completely unnecessary in order to not discover that thing about herself yet. I’m being really vague here but the author’s fingers were all over the page turning Kira away from doing the logical thing so that the big reveal could come later.

My final complaint is about the very end and I’m going to go ahead and just give spoilers for this — though minor ones. After all the riots and government corruption and plots to create a totalitarian regime the people went ahead and reelected the same officials that had been plotting the demise of what was left of human civilization? I understand that you still need to have political intrigue in the next book but it felt so far-fetched I had a hard time believing it.

These are minor problems. The book is brilliantly written and powerfully told. It’s about trying to save life. It’s about the sacrifices that must be made along the way. It doesn’t get much better than this.

I Don’t Want to Kill You by Dan Wells

John Wayne Cleaver is a teenage sociopath. He lacks the ability to form emotional connections with people and to feel empathy. He is also obsessed with serial killers. Having studied serial killers and their habits and psychological profiles he has begun to recognize in himself many of the signs of their behavior. Afraid of becoming one of the subjects of his obsession he creates a series of rules to govern himself based on how he observes others behaving around each other.

In the previous two books he was forced to compromise and even break those rules to save the people of his community from a terrifying demon that was in their midst. Now the consequences of those actions have come around full circle and John is forced to confront his own personal nightmare and to look it in the eye.

Another serial killer has come to town and in the midst of yet another killer stalking the streets there has been a rash of suicides in the community. John knows the killer is a demon… because he invited her to come to town. Now he needs to find her and kill her so that she cannot hurt anybody else.

If these stories were told by anybody else they wouldn’t be worth reading. John has a wry sense of humor that he employs at just the right times to make us laugh even while we are ready to cry for him.

Many people refer to the humor of these books as the element that makes John likeable and I suppose that might be part of it. I think it’s more than that. His particular disability makes him incapable of empathy and he tends to fantasize about killing and hurting people. But he doesn’t. He overcomes his desires and temptations. That struggle is what relates him to all of us. Everybody struggles – hopefully not with a desire to kill – and most people know what its like to walk away from something that we know we want right now but we will regret later. That makes John one of us and it can be rather shocking how familiar many of his problems feel.

Dan Wells has written a trilogy of books – and I hope even more – that should not ever have to end. They are the kind of stories that you can’t put down but fervently hope the end is farther away than it is.

It’s kind of a staple of young adult fiction that the main character must have a broken or dysfunctional family – look at any Disney family for example – and these books are no exception. The difference is that John’s mother really does love him and he really does love her. He shows it in odd ways, he is, after all, a sociopath, and they don’t always get along but they love each other. His father is a different story.

There is physical danger to character in this book but the parts where Dan Wells tears your heart out and squeezes it in his fist are the parts where John realizes that he’s going to have to let out Mr. Monster in order to save people that he is incapable of caring about.

This book gets marketed as horror but it is so much more than that.

Mr. Monster by Dan Wells

John Wayne Cleaver is a teenager with Conduct Disorder. That means that if he were an adult he would be called a sociopath. He follows certain rules to keep from hurting people and becoming the killer that he feels like his nature wants him to be. The rules worked even if they made him a little bit socially awkward. Then a demon came to town, hunting and killing men. John was forced to let out his own inner monster, break his rules in order to hunt down the demon and stop him from killing. Now that the demon is gone John is left struggling to reinstate the rules again so that he can go back to living his life without feeling a need to torture and kill those around him.

If you can’t tell this story is dark. John is not the kind of person whose thoughts you want to share. He wants to be a good person. He wants to have friends and be around people but his understanding of social cues is learned rather than natural and being around people makes him imagine some very dark things.

Dan Wells is a strong writer. He takes a character that would normally be the villain and makes him not only sympathetic but somebody you don’t feel bad about sympathizing with. He also brilliantly puts John in positions where only a sociopath, with no emotional connection to other people, could keep a clear head. John becomes the hero because of his sociopathy, not in spite of it. I’m not sure whether to applaud this or feel just a little creeped out.

Regardless the book is intense and exciting and written beautifully.