Before I begin this review, I think I should get the warning out of the way. This series is violent. Incredibly violent. If you are in any way squeamish or easily frightened, these books are not for you. There are scenes of a disturbing nature throughout every tale and I would not recommend them to anyone who is sensitive to reading explicit descriptions of torture and dismemberment.
The Demonata was the second young adult series written by Irish author Darren Shan and presents a much darker tale than his previous work, The Saga of Darren Shan. The series consists of ten novels, each told in first person by one of three protagonists. In order of publication, these are Lord Loss (2005), Demon Thief (2005), Slawter (2006), Bec (2006), Blood Beast (2007), Demon Apocalypse (2007), Death’s Shadow (2008), Wolf Island (2008), Dark Calling (2009) and Hell’s Heroes (2009). The novels focus on the protagonists’ battle to stop legions of malevolent demons from wiping out all life on earth. For the purpose of this review, we will be looking at the first two novels.
Lord Loss is told by Grubitsch “Grubbs” Grady, a teenager who likes nothing more than playing grotesque pranks on his older sister and hates his family’s obsession with playing chess. Life is pretty normal for Grubbs until he returns home one night to find that his whole family has been butchered by three hideous demons. Grubbs manages to escape with his life by activating his previously dormant magic powers but soon succumbs to shock and suffers a nervous breakdown.
After a lengthy recovery, Grubbs is allowed to live with his Uncle Dervish. Dervish Grady is a strange man but is the only one who believes Grubbs about the demons, seeming to know more about them than he lets on. He claims that so long as Grubbs remains in his care he will be safe from them, but his nephew is not wholly convinced. Half-eaten animals have been found in the woods and one of the local boys has a theory that Dervish might be a werewolf…
Demon Thief is the story of Cornelius “Kernal” Fleck, an introverted boy who possesses the strange ability to see pulsing lights floating in the air. Although he does not initially know the nature of these lights, one night they draw together to form a window to another world. On stepping through this window, Kernal experiences several days of lost time before finally reappearing before his terrified parents.
Fleeing to the countryside in an attempt to put the incident behind them, Kernal’s family try to settle back to normality but unfortunately this is not to be. While at school one day, Kernal bears witness to the opening of a second portal. This time, a demon passes through it and tears apart many children before kidnapping Kernal’s baby brother, Art, and disappearing back into its realm.
Kernal pursues the demon, hoping to rescue Art, and soon meets up with a group of demon hunters who call themselves the Disciples. On learning about Kernal’s gift, their leader strikes up a deal with him. They will help Kernal to rescue Art if Kernal uses the lights to find a long lost weapon – the Kah-Gash – which is rumoured to have the power to destroy the demon world once and for all.
As I already mentioned, the Demonata is an incredibly violent series – more so than any other young adult novel that I have read. In particular, the scene in which Grubbs discovers the bodies of his parents will leave a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach. As I read the novels, I was reminded very much of the early work of Clive Barker as they contain the same kind of visceral horror, visions of a hellish world and creative monsters. Lord Loss himself is particularly memorable, projecting an air of sympathy to conceal his monstrous machinations.
At times, this degree of grotesquery can seem gratuitous (even laughable in the case of the acid spewing chicken-pig of Demon Thief) but for the large part it seems fitting for the kind of horror that Shan is trying to present. The Demonata is not about subtle terror. It’s about mages waging war against and enemy that would like nothing more than to rip them apart. In this, the novels are very effective. We are never in any doubt of how badly the protagonists are suffering and how much joy this gives Lord Loss.
Of the two novels, Lord Loss was by far my favourite. The story is fast paced and took some twists that genuinely took me by surprise. The plot builds gradually, never feeling the need to exposit as its layers are gradually uncovered. Although the importance of chess is clear from very early on, the role that it played in the climax was highly unexpected. You may be able to tell that I am trying to avoid spoilers in describing this, but I don’t want to spoil the novel for you. It really is a gripping and rewarding read that certainly left me wanting more.
Unfortunately, Demon Thief did not provide the satisfaction that I craved. The novel is actually a prequel to Lord Loss, though this was not clear until a young Dervish Grady turned up half-way through the story. Although some references are made to the events of Lord Loss (such as Lord Loss’s connection to the Grady family) it largely stands alone. While I didn’t dislike the story, it seemed to lack some of the originality of its precursor.
While Lord Loss seemed fresh and unique, offering a surprising amount of character development between the action sequences, Demon Thief was more typically splatterpunk. There was a lot more time devoted to fight sequences and a lot less spent creating an engaging story. Although this novel also had a twist in the tail, I felt that this was far too well signposted (I had guessed it by page thirty-two). Between the disappointing twist and the abundance of action, by the end of the novel I was beginning to find reading it quite tiring. I could have done with some quieter scenes to give my brain some time to recover between the waves of demons.
However, one thing that Demon Thief does do is set the stage for future novels. While Lord Loss introduces Grubbs, Dervish and Lord Loss, it does not do much to flesh out the extended story. In Demon Thief we begin to see the story threads that will carry on to future books – the attributes of the Demonata’s universe, the importance of finding the fragments of the Kah-Gash and the function of the Disciples. Although sometimes the exposition that Shan uses to present these themes is a little too heavy-handed, it still builds intrigue as to how these aspects will affect later volumes.
The other thing that Demon Thief does better than Lord Loss is present a likable protagonist. Although Grubbs does grow more sympathetic as the novel goes on, he is utterly insufferable to begin with. The prank that he plays on his sister is utterly vile and made me dislike him almost immediately. He behaves more like a dangerous sociopath than an ordinary teenage boy. Kernal, on the other hand, is far more relatable. It is a lot easier to empathise with a kind-hearted boy who clearly adores his baby brother. The difference between the two characters is also readily apparent in the style in which the novels are written – Grubb’s short, clipped sentences contrasting with the more eloquent Kernal.
With regards to supporting cast, Demon Thief does also offer a wider array of different characters (including female characters which are almost entirely absent in Lord Loss) and takes more time to focus on their strengths and differences. With the exception of Grubbs, Dervish and Bill-E, very few characters in Lord Loss receive a lot of page time. Even Grubbs’ parents make little impression, which is a shame because it meant that their deaths had little meaning beyond shock value.
So, in conclusion, Lord Loss and Demon Thief collectively form a pretty strong start to the series. Although Lord Loss is more unique and enthralling, Demon Thief takes the themes that it raises and begins to further develop them into the plot threads that will carry the rest of the story. Although violent, the novels are incredibly creative and are a welcome change from the zombie stories and vampire romances that seem to be currently filling the young adult horror market. If you can stomach the gore, these books are well worth your time.