★ ★ ★ ★
I probably should not describe a book about the gates of Hell opening as ‘cute,’ but here we are:
It was cute.
I haven’t read any Connolly before, not even the famous Book of Lost Things, so I didn’t know what to expect–besides the fact that friend Mimi liked it. Turns out it was a quick little read that was clever and entertaining.
Samuel Johnson is avoiding Stephanie the Babysitter and her bossy tendencies when he and his faithful dog, Boswell (the constant companion), witnesses the new neighbors at 666 Crowley Road summon a demon. As Samuel watches through the basement window, the demon brings over a few more pals and then helpfully outlines its plans to pave the way for the Great Malevolence. At the Large Hadron Collider beneath a mountain, the scientists are puzzled when a particle seems to ‘fly off’ and code is suddenly re-written. That shouldn’t be possible, either in Battleship or in Boson land. Meanwhile, Nurd, Scourge of Five Deities (but mostly just Annoying to his brothers who include “Graham, the Demon of Stale Biscuits and Crackers and Erics’, the Demon of Bad Punctuation“), is facing a serious bout of exile-induced boredom in the Wasteland when he’s suddenly pulled to Earth.
Narration has a dry British humor to it, although played down a bit to the young adult level. There’s some interesting science background integrated into the story–it’s not every day a fiction book educates on beginning of the universe and the scientific method, although Connelly does note, “This is how we end up with nuclear weapons, and scientists claiming that they’d only set out to invent something that steamed radishes.” It may be that I’m in British humor mode lately, as I make my way through Aaronovitch’s Grant audio books, but I found myself snickering quite a bit, especially in the beginning. Connolly uses footnotes to a much better effect than Susanna Clarke, particularly when he explains being ‘sick’ to the presumed adolescents reading the book. As he explains the punctuation, he describes air quotes. When he takes it a step further by suggesting the reader use air quotes to describe a ‘dinner’ of boiled fish, I found myself laughing. But perhaps I’m easily amused. The asides allowed educational but tongue-in-cheek social commentary while the story could focus on plot and entertaining dialogue. Like the best child films, there’s quite a bit here to amuse those with a classical education, as when Samuel runs into trouble showing Mr. Hume a pin, speculating about angels dancing on the head.
Given all the cheeky asides and references, it is a relief that the plot is straightforward and moves briskly. Characters don’t get a ton of space to develop, but what is there is serviceable enough, avoiding caricature. I liked that Samuel’s separated parents provided an emotional foil to rival the physical threat of the demons.
I don’t know that I’d agree with those who saw similarities with Gaiman, whose focus is often on world-building, weirdness and the occasional creepy sexuality more than a linear plot, or those who saw a similarity with Good Omens by Pratchett, who never met a farce he didn’t want to turn into a 350 page book. It most reminded me most of A. Lee Martinez’ Gil’s All Fright Diner (review), somewhat strangely of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and for a very brief moment, Mr. Frog of Frog and Toad.
Breezy, quick, with charming little informative asides–did you know that Michelangelo wrote a poem complaining about painting the Sistine Chapel? When was the last time I said that about a fiction young-adult book?¹ For that matter, an adult urban fantasy?² Highly recommended if one is feeling whimsical and clever.
²Only if you count mythology.