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.


The Terror by Dan Simmons

In May of 1845 the Erebus and the Terror, two refitted ships of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy set sail from Greenhithe. Outfitted with the latest in steam engine technology (including retractable drills that could be pulled in to protect them from the ice) and new metal plating outside of their 14 inches of hardwood hull they sailed North on a quest to find the fabled Northwest Passage. They spent their first winter in Baffin Bay and then continued. They were never heard from again.

Known as the failed Franklin expedition – after the commander of the Erebus John Franklin – more than a century has passed and still little is known about what happened to them.

Dan Simmons tries to fill in some of those gaps. The Terror is a tragedy that the ancient Greeks would have loved. Betrayal, treachery, and plain human ignorance threaten to destroy the crews of Terror and Erebus if the cold and ice don’t kill them first.

After the death of John Franklin the command is left up to Terror’s captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier and Erebus first mate James Fitzjames. It is a desperate fight to survive in a harsh land where temperatures reach -100 degrees, the sun does not shine for several months of the year and their ships are being slowly crushed beneath them by the ever shifting and treacherous ice.

Then the food starts to run out. And the coal. The canned goods are poisoned by botulism and the solder on the cans is giving the men lead poisoning. Then there is the scurvy.

A hunting party returns one day with the body of an old Eskimo man they shot accompanied by his mute daughter. The soldiers name her Lady Silence and quickly come to regard her as a witch. For shortly after she shows up a monster – the sailors dub ‘The Terror’ starts talking and killing men. It stands twice as tall as the great polar bear and can rise up out of the ice and disappear back into it. Most of all it possesses a cunning that taunts Crozier and his men with rearranged pieces of corpses and brutally timed but seemingly random attacks that indicate a preternatural intelligence.

Between the cold, the scurvy and the ‘Terror’ I found myself alternately freezing (no mean feat in southern Arizona), starving and curious – I wanted to know what the creature was.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel is the characters. Some you will cheer for and depend on. Others you will hate with a burning passion.

To me that alone makes it a success but added to it is Simmon’s signature ability to write. The man just understands words and the way they fit together so intimately that they become a frozen wasteland of jutting jagged ice and it becomes easy to get lost and frozen.

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.

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

201107112206.jpg Dan Wells is a surprisingly literary writer for his chosen genre. This book, if you can’t tell from the title, is intended to be horror and it very much is. I’m not talking about the ‘horror’ of Saw XIV in 3D (or however many there are now) where it’s really just a contest between the producers and watchers to see if they can make you sick. This is real horror of a type that will keep you breathless with anticipation, and give you bad dreams.

John Wayne Cleaver is a fifteen-year-old sociopath who lives with his mother above a mortuary. He knows certain behaviors are wrong, intellectually and he has developed certain rules to keep himself from stalking his classmates and doing other creepy things that he is prone to do. He believes that he is destined to become a serial killer and must follow his rules to keep that from happening.

Then a real serial killer comes to town and John is the only one in town equipped to stop him, but to do so he must tear down his rules and let the monster inside him out. The story of his struggles to understand other people’s emotions and to control his own violent desires make up the heart of the story and keep the book on a constant edge of heart-breaking tension.

The other part of the story is John hunting the serial killer and discovering some very dark secrets about himself in the process.

Dan Wells has a strong voice and a great writing style that not only keeps the story moving but does so with a touch of dark humor and well-thought prose that is both concise and eloquent. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Untitled 5.jpg Cherie Priest is up for a Hugo this year so I decided to read her first book.

She writes extremely well and concisely. The story starts out in Chattanooga and moves south through Atlanta and into the swamps of northern Florida. The writing actually made me a little bit homesick for the south – which is a feat in itself since the south is not a fun place to be most of the time. Her descriptions of the countryside, the cities, the interactions of the people and the complicated family trees (her cousin is also her brother) all felt extremely real to somebody who has lived in that part of the country.

The book is marketed as horror but I think it’s more of a ghost story than a horror novel. Certainly there were no make-you-jump moments and no horrifying scenes of blind panic. The main character keeps her head through the whole book, even in the face of dire threats to her life.

I think, however, that the major flaw is the coolness of the main character. She is constantly being attacked by her cousin/brother, who is bent on killing her, and she constantly insists that she really isn’t scared of him or even concerned that he might succeed. Her unconcern transfers to the reader and makes the story read more like a fireside ghost story than the intense family drama that it tries to be.

I enjoyed the book but it didn’t inspire me.