Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review - The Demon of Renaissance Drive by Elizabeth Reuter

Short review:  Annabelle is a succubus. She's also bored so she rescues a damned soul on a whim. Then things get interesting.

A bored succubus
A whimsical decision
A lot of trouble

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: I have to admit that this book was not exactly what I expected when I picked it up. With a succubus for a protagonist and what seemed like a gritty urban setting, I more or less assumed that this would be a sexy, dark adventure with lots of romance and erotica. The actual book is not quite that, although it is set against a gritty urban backdrop. Instead of romance and erotica, this book delivers some adventure but also a lot of fairly thought provoking questions about morality and punishment.

The title character, Annabelle, is a succubus. In traditional terms, she is a sex demon, but in this book it would be more appropriate to call her a breeding demon. This is because, like all other succubi, Annabelle gets pregnant every time she has sex. And most other female demons are effectively barren. At the start of the book, the demoness is approximately six thousand years old and has birthed approximately one million baby demons in her lifetime. As there are only seven succubi left in Hell, and Annabelle is apparently of a noble lineage, she is in high demand as a brood mare, and is showered with gifts and attention from the powerful inhabitants of the nether world for her services. And she simply doesn't want to do it any more.

One can kind of sympathize with Annabelle's position once the story gets around to a sequence in which she does get pregnant and have a child. But the only key element at the beginning is that she is bored and looking for something interesting to do. And one day, while out traveling through Hell, Annabelle happens upon another demon with a collection of damned souls in his charge and, on a lark, she decides to rescue one of them from the impending horrific punishment imminently to be imposed upon him. This decision, made on a whim, drives the rest of the plot of the book. By stealing a soul Annabelle has committed a grave offense against the established order of Hell, and in order to protect herself and her newly adopted pet, she has to flee to Earth, which is probably a more critical issue for the lords of Hell. After all, they have millions of damned souls, but only seven breeding succubi. It is an interesting decision, because it casts Annabelle in the role of the rescuer, and the rescued man in the role of the damsel in distress. But the role reversal is deeper than a mere gender switch of the traditional roles: she is a demon, supposedly a creature without pity or remorse, and even though he is in distress, as a damned soul, one assumes that the distressed is justified by his crimes. In short, the primary point of the story revolves around mercy being granted by the merciless to a criminal who is being punished for crimes he did, in fact, commit.

The strange thing about Annabelle's decision is that she's not even sure why she rescued this particular damned soul. She isn't particularly romantically interested in him, and she clearly has no real plan for what to do with him or for him. And given that when she acquires this soul he is catatonic from the massive trauma of being systemically tortured nonstop for however long he has been in Hell. Even "Harry", the name initially used for the soul, is one that Annabelle picks at random, because Harry cannot speak, and when he does speak, he cannot remember who he was before he died. And it is at this point that one begins to wonder about the justness of the order that Hell enforces: Is infinite punishment for finite crimes truly just? No matter what Harry did, is it bad enough that he should be perpetually tortured in such gruesome ways that he even forgets his own identity? And once he has forgotten his crime, and forgotten everything else about himself, what is the point of continuing to punish the shell that is left? Yes, it is the same soul that (as we find out later) engaged in some undeniably heinous acts, but once all memory of them has been erased by years of unending torment, is what is left still deserving of punishment? This also points to the question of redemption: Once Harry's memory has been destroyed, not only does continuing to torment him seem pointless, but also wasteful. And when Harry's memory does return after therapy later in the book, the form of punishment he suffered has clearly altered his thinking to the point that he no longer harbors the beliefs that led him to be condemned to the infernal realm to begin with. Consequently, while Harry is clearly not innocent, it seems gratuitous that had Annabelle not rescued him, he would have been subjected to an eternity of excruciating penance even when it served no purpose whatsoever.

And of course, once one's mind is sent down this path, one wonders about the nature of a system that condemns the demons who inhabit Hell to their bleak existence. In the classic Miltonian formulation, demons are those angels who followed Lucifer into rebellion against divine authority and were cast down for their defiance. One can quibble with whether such a crime would merit being cast into a lake of fire for all eternity, but at least there is some justification for their torment. But in The Demon of Renaissance Drive, there are millions of demons who are subjected to the delights of Hell for no reason other than the misfortune of having been born. Even Annabelle herself was born into a life as a demon, and not only that, a life as a succubus, which entails the repeated harrowing experience of enduring all the pain of pregnancy and childbirth in a single day a million times over. And of course, she is depicted (at times) as an inhuman monster. But after living for thousands of years under the conditions of Hell, how could she be otherwise? And what had she done to deserve this treatment? It is one thing to have injustice in an uncaring universe, but when there is presumably a supernatural ranking of right and wrong and corresponding rewards and punishments, having an entire class of creatures born into an eternity of misery with no apparent fault on their part seems to be an interesting subtext of the story, especially when humans who willingly align themselves with the powers of Hell show up in the form of the Satanist leader Douglas Crane.

But this points to one of the problems with the book, and one of the problems with books that include inhuman characters: despite being described as an evil being from the depths of time, Annabelle is remarkably human in her wants, needs, and desires. She steals Harry on a whim, and throughout the book she is not sure why she cares for him - spiriting him out of Hell, securing the services of a psychiatrist named Jimmy to help heal the broken parts of Harry's mind (and reveal that "Harry" is in fact Steve), and so on. But to the reader it is fairly clear: Annabelle is experiencing compassion for Harry/Steve. In fact, all of the demons presented in the book seem to be very human in character. This is not a criticism of Reuter's abilities as a writer, but is rather the observation that creating characters that are both inhuman in outlook and which the reader can identify with is extremely difficult. When Annabelle is acting "demonic", she is unsympathetic and mostly uninteresting. When she is acting more human-like, she no longer seems alien and diabolical. And this effect does not apply only to Annabelle. All of the demons portrayed in the book seem remarkably human in their desires: Belial desires children, Avaira his wife feels jealous over his tryst with Annabelle, the dukes of Hell all desire heirs (although one has to wonder why the immortal rulers of Hell find it critically important to secure legitimate heirs), and so on and so forth. Hell, it seems, is more or less populated by humans with weird shapes and supernatural powers. Of course, in a book in which the existence of Hell is confirmed, certain theological questions come to mind as a result, and Jimmy, having been apparently raised in an ardently religious family, beings to ask them once he unravels what Annabelle and Steve are. But Annabelle (and Reuter) steadfastly refuse to answer these questions, creating an unusual ambiguity in the story insofar as everyone involved is certain the Hell is a real place, with real demonic denizens, but Heaven and God are hazy and indistinct uncertainties.

Despite the theological ramblings the characters engage in through the book, the main plot is more or less a sequence of chases, as Annabelle tries to prevent the Lords of Hell from discovering that she absconded with Harry/Steve and later, once her theft has been discovered, her attempts to evade capture. Along the way, Annabelle makes deals with powerful demons, but also engages in the mundane tasks of working at a fast food restaurant, renting a cheap house, and illegally purchasing a handgun. It is this combination of the fantastic and the ordinary that makes the book interesting and brings the philosophical questions to the fore. Juxtaposing the politics of Hell with the lives of ordinary humans serves to take the wind out of the sails of the demons. For all of her posturing about how boring, simple, and petty humans are, all of the demons who appear in the book are at least as boring, simple, and petty as the humans they disdain. In a similar way, though this story ostensibly is large enough to shake the very political foundations of Hell, much of it boils down to a very small story of a trio of individuals trying to avoid a regime that each of them for their own reasons finds intolerable. And even the philosophical conflicts ultimately boil down to the very personal: even though Jimmy knows Annabelle is a demon, and thus an embodied agent of evil, he is more disturbed by Harry/Steve and the very human crimes he committed before he died that led to his condemnation in this life and further punishment after death. The horror of dealing with a demon is not particularly bothersome for Jimmy, but a neo-Nazi murderer is. Until the crime is made human, it is simply not cognizable. And the same is true of the story: until the story is brought down to the level of borrowing cars and hiding out in hotels, it doesn't seem real. But when the ordinary is mixed in with the fantastic, everything ends up working.

As with most good fiction, The Demon of Renaissance Drive raises many question, and like most good fiction, it doesn't directly answer them. Why are there only seven succubi? What is the purpose of the punishments of Hell? Why is it critical that no souls ever get lost? Is Hell just? And does it matter? How is it that a demon can exercise more forgiveness than a supposedly empathetic human trained to treat people with mental illnesses? And so on. And the reader is left wondering about the characters too - as the story ends on something of a cliffhanger, one has to wonder how, now that the tables have been turned, a pair of more or less ordinary men plan to rescue a demon taken to face judgment for her transgressions. As this book's plot had been driven by actions that are reversed from what one would expect, it seems that the continuation of the story will probably feature another kind of reversal as the powerless attempt to rescue the comparatively powerful. This book, loaded with subverted expectations (starting with a sex demon who only has sex once in the book), is both an enjoyable adventure, and is both more substantial and more thought-provoking than one might expect.

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