Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Pandemonium

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

I recently completed my first fantasy novel of the year, a debut title by Daryl Gregory called Pandemonium. The events in Pandemonium take place in a world very much like ours with one slight difference...ever since around the 1950's, seemingly random acts of demon possession occur. These possessions can target men, women, and children and the demonic entities themselves seem to be spawned from pop-culture archetypes. There are eight such demons; the Truth, who is a cloaked avenger of lies, with dual pistols ready to send liars to their grave, the Captain, a heroic demon who possesses soldiers, the Little Angel, who possesses little curly haired girls and delivers kisses of death to terminally ill hospital patients, Smokestack Johnny, a railroad demon, Kamikaze, a demon you don't want possessing your airplane pilot, the painter, who creates pastoral images out of whatever is handy, Boy Marvel, another hero type, and the Hellion, who possesses little boys and makes sometimes deadly mischief.

Del, the story's protagonist was possessed by the Hellion at a young age, but with psychiatric help, a loving family and an exorcism, the demon was forced out. Or so we are made to think. One night Del has a terrible car crash, and while waiting in his overturned car for help, Del feels the Hellion inside him again, trapped, and clamoring to get out.

Del is written as your average guy, but with some deep rooted psychological issues, which are worsening as the demon inside him struggles to break free. Fearing what kind of destruction the Hellion would reap given control of an adult body, Del seeks help to purge the demon once again. His journey leads him to a scientific convention on the topic of possession where Del seeks out the aid of a brilliant doctor. Along the way he meets Valis, a demon controlling the body of the Sci-fi writer formerly know as Phillip K. Dick, and Mother Mariette, a rocker-nun who specializes in exorcism. Many people believe that Del holds the secret to stopping demon possession once and for all, but the "best" cure for Del isn't exactly one he is willing to commit to.

Pandemonium is easily the best fantasy book I've read in some time. Gregory set the bar pretty high for himself with such a solid debut. The character building, while not the best, was still very strong, and as I read, I definitely cared strongly about what the outcome would be for Del. Gregory kept the story rolling throughout, and I once I reached the halfway point, I couldn't stop myself, and I finished the second half off in one, albeit long, sitting. I think the thing that impressed me the most was just how economic the story was. Basically everything that happens in Pandemonium means something, and it likely doesn't mean what you initially thought it would. Gregory peppers the overall narrative with short "Demonology" chapters where short vignettes give you back story on the nature of various demons in the pantheon. Add some twists, some I saw coming and others I didn't, and what you get is a great novel.

It felt really good to read something so well conceived, constructed, and implemented. The idea of demon possession is a good one, but could have easily turned out to be campy. Gregory instead delivers a gritty, adult novel that I loved. Pandemonium is a book I would recommend to most anyone, as I feel it would be enjoyed by non fantasy genre readers as well.

I look forward to reading more from Gregory in the future, his follow up novel, Devils Alphabet is on my list of books to read.

grade: A

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