by Stephanie Chong, fantasy (2011)
MIRA, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7783-1247-5
There is nothing that is too ghastly or deplorable from a technical standpoint in Stephanie Chong's debut effort Where Demons Fear To Tread. It's just that the whole concept of this story is so fundamentally screwed up that this book may as well contain nothing more than the alphabets W, T, and F typed again and again from page one to last.
Now, I like bad boys. I don't mind evil guys. Albert Wesker from those Resident Evil games makes my heart melt every time he plans these grand missions of human genocide, and the hero of this book, Julian Ascher, is as much a cartoon villain as dear adorable Wesker. We are talking about a demon who boasts about having corrupted thousands of souls, after all. As an Archdemon, he has started a chain of night clubs to deliberately lure humans into ruin. He crows about having not only hastened the ruination of an ex-girlfriend's pop music career, he also caused her to end up in an asylum for nutjobs. If we want to put things in perspective, this is a guy whose body count may not be comparable to insane power-hungry despots, but he may be even more cruel than your typical Idi Amin type, since he befriends and then slowly but surely destroys his victims.
And this story insists that he can be redeemed because there is still some good inside him.
I don't know how to even start with that. How can there be any good inside a demon who doesn't feel any remorse at that point about his actions? Is "good" here is some kind of sparkly unicorn-shaped aura glowing in the hero's chest that marks him okay to be shagged? Therein lies the fundamental problem with this story: the author is trying so hard to justify that the hero is somehow still good even as at the same time she tries to seduce me with the hero's over the top badness. She can't have the cake and eat it too - if the guy is evil, then let him be evil. Don't insult me by claiming that he is still good inside. I'm not stupid. So the hero has a sad past. Boo-hoo-hoo, and I'm sure there was a girl who once made Hitler cry when he was a little brat. Let's all cry for these misunderstood sweet little boys!
Oh, the heroine. Serena St Clair is a guardian angel. Apparently, when you die, you can get picked to become one. Since Serena passed her angel classes with flying colors, I guess you need to die with a brain dysfunction to qualify for wings, as Serena in this story is just an empty shell. She's naïve, incapable, and useless, serving solely as a blow-up doll to catalyze the hero's "redemption" and to get into trouble so that he can save her. Serena has two sole distinguishing character traits - aside from those two on her chest, that is - innocence and purity. If you cannot tolerate such heroines, Serena will make you throw up all over the house because Innocence and Purity is all she is to everyone else here. Her superior believes that Serena's innocence will redeem Julian. Julian feels that Serena's purity is awakening the dormant goodness in him. I don't know how this happens, I'm just told that, somehow, after their first physical contact where Julian terrifies Serena and then roughly kisses her (causing her to flee his club like a mentally handicapped child whose pants are on fire), he starts feeling funny. Apparently Serena is so amazing in her purity and innocence that all she has to do is to stand there and exist, and everyone, from Archdemons to Villain Demons (which I guess the bad guy is, since he's somehow supposed to be different than the hero), will want to bask in the light of innocence radiating from between the legs of Serena the unicorn angel of pure love. Since this story is hero-centric - apparently I'm supposed to fall in love with the hero and thus overlook everything else in this story - I have no idea why Serena will fall for this foul demon who inspires more negative than positive feelings in her. Then again, she's probably just brain damaged.
Meanwhile, the bad guys - with the woman being the principle villain, naturally - actually come off as more benign than the hero, but yet, there is somehow not enough goodness inside them to be loved by an angel. Clearly, you can kill, plunder, destroy, and butcher as much as you want and you can still be a good guy as long as you have hard abs and a powerful pee-pee, but heaven forbid you dare stand in the way of True Love. Then you are evil. Evil, evil, EVIL.
Ultimately, the problem with this book boils down to this: it is too much of an insult to my intelligence that the hero is still a bit of a good guy after all the sins he has committed. This is made worse by a very poorly-drawn heroine whose role is to serve merely as a prop for the hero and a receptacle for his lust. If an angel is going to fall in love with a creature that is entirely the opposite of everything she is taught to believe in, then the author has better show me why this can happen. With a character as poorly written as Serena, that is impossible.
Also, the whole approach to love in this book is unbelievably insipid. "If you keep love in your heart, you will always be safe." What is this? Poetry written by a fifteen-year old girl who has just lost her virginity? Worse, once Julian decides to reform, he starts turning his night clubs into... into... oh god, it's like those creepy "closed by ten" Christian clubs where clean-cut people - or angels in this case - dance the night away under "disco lights" while Julian shouts to Serena, "This is how it should be. No crime, no drugs, no prostitution." Good lord, what kind of creepy-ass purity porn is this?
To add salt to the injury, I actually dreamed, the night after reading this book, of Hugh Jackman as Eljoras singing to the tune of the chorus in Red And Black: "No crime, no drugs, no PROS-TI-TUUUUUUUU-TION!" No, I wasn't amused and no, it wasn't a pleasant dream.
As I've mentioned earlier, I'm not convinced that Stephanie Chong is a bad writer. It's just that her hammy, insipid, and insulting treatment of redemption and love and NO PROSTITUTION in this story is so ghastly and just plain cracked. Perhaps it would have been a blessing if the author had been a terrible writer, because then the sheer awfulness of this story wouldn't infiltrate my brain with such coherent devastation.
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