Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Book review: The Devil in the Wide City by Justin Alcala

Disclaimer: I received an advanced digital copy of this book from the author, who is a friend of mine, in a exchange of a honest feedback.

Paperback310 pages
Expected publication: May 26th 2016 by Zharmae Publishing Press
Cover Image taken with permission from the author's Twitter

Summary from Goodreads:
The Devil in the Wide City is an absurdist fictional novel which follows Ned, the most unlucky fallen angel in hell as he tries to earn his way back to Earth after starting "The Great Chicago Fire". Through a series of fortunate events, Ned gets a second chance to return to Chicago after he's charged with finding a missing devil. Unfortunately, it's been more than a century since Ned has been on the surface, and a lot seems to have changed. As he begins to rub elbows with other supernatural beings, including Catherine O'Leary, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, John Dillinger, and more, he learns that his task might not be as easy as he thought, especially after he meets Chelsea, an occult bookstore owner who is as feisty as she is beautiful and smart

My Thoughts:

Back when I was a teenager, I spent weekends upon weekends upon weekends sitting with my friends in dark movie theaters (and draining my weekly allowance as soon as it was handed out, but teenaged Nath's financial-planning skill is a topic for another day).

A few handful of times, I would sit back and lazily sip on my bubble tea, wondering when the hero and heroine of the long-drawn romance on the screen would finally kiss. Sometimes I would laugh at the hilarious misfortune of some fictional doofuses; some other times, I would perch at the edge of my seat and prayed in secret, hoping that we would still have Cruise (or Diesel or Cage) after that epic-fall-out-of-the-speeding-car-and-into-the-abyss. Most of the time, though, I would curl up in silence and shut my eyes, relying on the creaking and creepy music and screams for cues to open my eyes and peek.

A hint of romance. Splashes of comedy. Lots of action. Generous servings of horror.

Those were my teenage years -- and those are The Devil in the Wide City.

I had known that this book was being brewed for months (perks of knowing the awesome author and his awesome fairy queen), and I'd known all along what the main plot was about -- but I'd never expected that the story would be delivered the way it did. When I heard 'Devil' and 'fallen angel' and 'supernatural', I had the picture of a foreboding-music-and-creaking-doors horror in mind. Not one of adrenaline-on-steroid explosions and swordfights and gang turf-wars and supervillains with egos the size of Lake Michigan.

And clearly, not one of a joke-after-joke-after-pun-after-ouch-that-must-hurt-after-holy-serious-what-did-he-think-the-monster-looked-like-s.

A major part of the book's refreshing formula is the point of view it is told from. Our first-person narrator and protagonist Nedonius (or simply Ned) is a de -- okay, fallen angel, and seeing Hell and ghosts from his eyes makes a big difference. We get to start the story in his home of Hell, where Ned is another-ordinary-employee and everything is a poorly appropriated version of earth (yes, cultural appropriation is not just a human issue :P), and quickly move to a modern day Chicago where Ned's mission is. Showing his natural tendency/talent of chatting up girls ('lust') and corrupting humans ('gluttony', other deadly sins) from the very first moment on earth, Ned quickly gains two nerdy college students as minions, and a quirky human love interest, Chelsea. When Ned gets down to work and begins tracing the fellow fallen angel he is supposed to find, however, we begin seeing the detective/superhero side that he has -- and more of the ghosts and supernaturals of the story, which all fill roles typically given to human heroes instead of the default screamers-and-bloodthirsty-murderers horror movies often relegate them to. Without the goosebumps and clenching stomaches that human-narrators get when they see ghosts, these supernatural beings become just the people next door, sometimes weird and annoying but mostly nothing to run away from. I find that I enjoy this approach immensely, as it allows me to see richly imagined horror creatures without all the spooky drama, and actually appreciate what they look like/the story behind them instead of tuning them out because I don't want to dream about it later.

Plot-wise, Devil in Wide City is a blend of a rom-com and a superhero story, with most of the rom-coms embedded in the first half of the book and the superhero in the later part. While Ned's attraction to Chelsea feels instant and overly physical at first (Ned is an embodiment of 'lust', after all), Chelsea's well-rounded and assertive personality brings a new dimension to what could have headed down the beaten superhero-and-damsel track. I like how Chelsea is able to mentally parry with Ned and fight in her own ways (even against supernatural beings with supernatural powers), and how her combination of strengths and weak moments make her a unique and multi-dimensional character. As the plot pivots from the rom-com to the superhero (I won't go in depth how we switch from finding a fallen angel to defeating supervillain, because -- spoilers), Chelsea proves herself a valuable and active ally in Ned's fight against the Dictator Warlock who rules Chicago's supernatural side. While Ned's superheroic power and arc feels overpowering at times (guy is pretty self-absorbed, after all, he is a fallen angel who embodies deadly sins), Chelsea and the other allies have their own chances to shine. I find the plot satisfactory and fresh for the most part, easily imagined and well-grounded thanks to the use of present-Chicago landmarks as settings.

In terms of style, Devil in Wide City is sharp and often sarcastic like its narrator Ned, but not tiresomely so. Whilst there are parts of the action sequences that could have been more 'Ned' than 'neutral' and terms that could have been '19th century' (when Ned was last in Chicago) instead of 'current', the style and tone do not betray the heart of the story, and I find the book a pleasant read overall. There are parts of the books in which I have issues with Ned's voice (since he is, well, a really strongly-eyeroll-inducing embodiment of 'lust'), but I understand that it is part of the narrator's character/flaw, and at some point it becomes a comic relief at Ned's expense instead of an 'ugh' moment.

Overall, I give Devil in Wide City a 4.2 out of 5, and I'd recommend the book to adults (18+ due to Ned's well, nature and the relevance of the character arc) who'd like to see bits and pieces of every genre and wildly imagined creatures in one book. While this book is more awesome when you have seen/known Chicago yourself, the important places are described richly enough to imagine -- and a little image search on your favorite search engine will help taking the atmosphere up one level.

Happy reading!

PS: Beware of hell hounds ;)