I decided to take a break from reading fairy tales last month to read some fiction that more closely aligns to my novel-in-progress in terms of the supernatural. Based on the recommendations from several writer friends, I picked up Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon Lexicon, the first novel in a young adult urban fantasy trilogy.
WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for the climax of the novel.
Though the events of the novel take place in an alternate version of Earth that isn’t too different from our own, Brennan wastes no time conveying the rules and dangers of her fictional world to the reader. In the very first pages, the two teenage protagonists are attacked by a flock of demonically possessed ravens that fly straight through their kitchen window like heat seeking missiles. This scene is very exciting and tense, because the reader has only just met these characters and already we understand that their lives are in constant danger and they know how to handle themselves in violent situations.
Brennan’s world has very clear and simple magical rules. In the version of Earth where Nick and Alan live, people with magical abilities exist. These magicians have a limited amount of power, so they join with other magicians to form Circles and share power. But if a magician, like the infamous Black Arthur, finds that sharing power isn’t enough, magicians can summon demons from parallel universes to give them power in exchange for favors like possessing human bodies. There are people who know about magicians and demons, like Nick and Alan’s father, and there are those who live oblivious to the magical war being fought around them. The simplicity of Brennan’s magical system really appealed to me both as a writer and a reader. Because she was very upfront about the nature of magical rules and limitations, I felt like I could accurately anticipate what might happen next. Sometimes I was right, other times I was off, but I was never completely thrown out of the story or confused by an incidence of magic. Rather than limiting the trajectory of the story, having a clearly defined magical system– whether it is based on mysticism or science–helped focus the trajectory of the plot.
Another aspect of Brennan’s novel that I found interesting and unique was her characterization of the story’s main character, Nick. In my experience, it’s not often you read a young adult novel where the main character is as cruel, angry, and compassionless as Nick. As I read the novel, I found myself pitying Nick even though I didn’t like him very much. I would have rather read the story from Alan’s point-of-view, but at the end of the story the reasoning behind Brennan’s point-of-view choices and characterization become clear. Nick is a character who is so cold and emotionless (except for anger) that he seems almost inhuman. At the climax of the novel we learn that Nick isn’t actually human, but a demon that is trapped in a human body and has forgotten how to be a demon. With that revelation, all the other pieces of the story made sense—the reason Nick’s mother hated him, why Alan was always forcing him to wear his charm, the source of Nick’s constant anger and violent tendencies.
I had made several guesses about the reason for Nick’s lack of empathy while I read, but I was still surprised by the final reveal. I think this is a testament to Brennan’s skill as a world-builder and storyteller. She created this world where a number of things might have explained Nick’s strange coldness and magical ability—he could have been a magician, some kind of magical half-breed, or the offspring of a demon and a magician—but she still managed to subvert this reader’s expectations. I’ve never written a story with an anti-hero, but I could see how it would work based on Nick’s character. Though I can’t think of a way to incorporate this characterization sleight of hand in my current novel project, I think it would be an interesting exercise to try in future.
Can you think of other examples of anti-hero protagonists in young adult fiction?