Here’s the non-spoilery portion of this review – The Good Demon by Jimmy Cajoleas is a good read. It’s engaging. It’s interesting. It’s a wicked cool premise with a “rural urban fantasy” feel. By that I mean, it has that gritty urban fantasy feel, but it’s set in a modern rural area. Clare is our protagonist. She’s edgy, she smokes, she swears. She had a demon. It was taken from her, by the town preacher and his son. Now she’ll do anything to get her demon back. Like I said, it’s a killer premise. And it is well written. The words and story flow nicely. On a superficial level, I’d give it an easy 8/10. Through most of the book I kept thinking about a specific student of mine that I wanted to hand this book to, it seemed written just for her. (In that way that some books are.) Truth be told, I will probably still give it to her because I think it might be the book she needs right now. The difference is, I won’t buy a second copy to ensure that I have one to loan out if she doesn’t return it.
And now… Here be spoilers:
I used to teach a master class to writers on keeping your promises. It opened with a quick introduction to Chekhov’s Gun; “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that course as I read this book. In part because I bought it for the promises it made. And I’ll pass it on because of the promises it broke. In my master class, I teach writers how to keep track of the promises they make, the metaphorical pistols they hang on the wall. And I warn them about the wrath of readers who feel cheated when those pistols are not fired.
Now, having worked in publishing, I know that writers have little to no say on the design and content of their covers, so I worked to not hold this first broken promise against Cajoleas. It’s probably not his fault that the front of the cover reads, “We all have demons. Clare wants hers back.” Because, you see, that line promises that Clare is not the only character in the book with a demon. Whether metaphorical or fantastically real – based on that one line, you would expect that others have demons.
Then, as you read, you come to a line where the preacher’s son, Roy, asks Clare about the exorcism that took her demon from her. He seems overly curious. He wants to know how it felt. You begin to think he must have one too – a demon, and he must be terrified that his dad will find out and exorcise it the way he exorcised Clare’s. There are other small hints and whispers that Roy has a demon of his own, so I kept waiting. And waiting. To no avail. Because while there is another character, sort of, who had a demon, it isn’t Roy. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so invested in this theory if the cover hadn’t promised me more demons… but honestly, I think I still would have expected Roy to have his own demon based on his words and actions. The fact that he didn’t annoyed me. It was a broken promise, and one that had it been kept would have enhanced the story immensely.
Which takes me to another issue I had with this book… When I began it, I checked the background of the author a couple of times because he writes Clare really well, and it’s rare for male authors to write female protagonists in rich, complex ways. But then… I learned more about Clare and her demon, and suddenly the Clare I met in the beginning of the book made less sense. She seemed more of a stereotype, a cardboard cut-out, than she had previously. See, Clare’s demon protects her from a ton of tragedies. She shields her and bubble wraps her. Clare’s demon is the ultimate helicopter parent. And yet – Clare smokes, and drinks, and swears, and comes off as this edgy “bad girl” despite how innocent her demon has kept her… And that didn’t ring true for me.
The book would have been much more believable if Clare had been a good girl, reigned in by her over-protective demon. It would have been more complicated, more complex, and more true. It would have felt more real if Roy was the rebellious preacher’s son and Clare was the innocent naive girl learning the ways of the world. Granted the trouble making preacher’s kid is also an over-done cliché, so I can see why the author tried to avoid it.
There are other broken promises – strange cults who should be trying to thwart Clare’s progress, and who indeed threaten to do just that before disappearing from the book forever. There are half-told backstories. Clare lost her father, Roy lost his mother. Neither one was lost to demons or magic…
In the end, it felt like a great concept that was half thought out. Like a book sold on a concept pitch and then rushed through writing and production. And I get it, it’s a GREAT concept. But I feel like it’s been done before, and done better. (Golden Compass anyone?)
My daughter read this book before I did, and we talked about it this morning as we were getting ready for school. I asked her what she thought and our conversation reminded me of another point… Clare’s demon is taken from her, exorcised from her, because Clare is sexually assaulted by a teen-aged boy. Her demon takes over and fights the boy off. Clare’s body goes on the attack and she bites the boy. When Clare’s stepdad and mom hear the noise, the come out and pull her off the boy. Clare, possessed by her demon, is still wild, thrashing, attacking, biting, swearing, etc. And her stepdad’s first reaction is to call a priest…
Um, so much nope. If either of my daughters is ever attacked or sexually assaulted by someone, I hope they do exactly what Clare’s demon did. I hope they try to bite the person’s head off. Seriously. If I was going to sic a priest on anyone in that scenario, it would be the person who attacked my daughter. After all, isn’t that the evil we should be exorcising from the world? In many ways, I think this scene is the one that broke my suspension of disbelief.
My daughter also gave this book a luke-warm review. Like me, she began it quickly and raved about it for about the first 1/2 to 3/4. Then the enthusiasm tapered until she handed it to me with a, “You should still read it so we can talk, but it’s not what we thought it was.”
She was right. It starts strong, but it doesn’t quite live up to its promise.
That said… I’m probably still going to by Cajoleas’ new book Goldeline because it looks dark and intriguing and I have strong hopes that Cajoleas will have refined his technique, and his promise keeping since this book. After all, The Good Demon was his first published book. Hardly anyone gets it perfect right out of the gate.