All my dangerous friends June 12, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
Tags: books, fangirl, fantasy novels, sarah rees brennan, the demon's covenant, the demon's lexicon, ya literature
It is the story of the ogre and the little girl, where she loves him because he may kill her, and he accepts her (and doesn’t kill her) because he loves her fear. That’s why they can live happily ever after – as long as she doesn’t recognise the Gothic mansion of his appetite for what it is.
Michael Wood, ‘At the Movies’ in the London Review of Books, talking about Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
This quote is about Rebecca, but it could refer to so many other things: Jane Eyre, from which Rebecca is derived, any number of a certain type of romance novel, and, of course, Twilight. One series to which it is definitely not applicable, though, is Sarah Rees Brennan’s young-adult Demon’s Lexicon series. Spoiler for the first two books of the series follow.
Rees Brennan is well-versed in this type of story. She’s a romance aficionado, she loves Austen and the Brontës and she’s familiar with the use of this trope in young-adult literature.
You know what trope I mean: the ‘good woman’ taming (or failing to tame) the wild beast through the healing power of love. The brooding, Byronic hero is barely restrained and barely contained, dangerous to all but the object of his affections – he’s different around her. Or he’s the only one of his kind (vampires, demons, old-school faeries) with some semblance of a moral code, and the power of love makes him try to be better, to be more human. He could kill her, but he doesn’t, and she could fear him, but doesn’t (or she fears him but enjoys it).
Sarah Rees Brennan tricks readers into thinking they’ve got this trope, and then cheerfully, gleefully subverts it.
Her books are about two groups of siblings – two brothers, and a brother and sister – who fight against evil magicians who raise demons to do their bidding. The first book, The Demon’s Lexicon, is told from the point of view of Nick, one of the two brothers, who has a complete inability to feel normal human emotions like empathy. At the end of the book, we discover this is because he isn’t human at all. He’s a demon.
The second book, The Demon’s Covenant is told from the point of view of the sister, Mae, who is an ordinary human girl who got to know Nick and his brother Alan when her brother Jamie got marked by possession by a demon (this happened in The Demon’s Lexicon). Covenant is about the quartet’s ongoing struggles with various groups of magicians, Jamie’s growing magical powers,* Nick’s attempts to come to terms with his identity as a demon – and Mae’s attempts to define herself as a person amid all these supernatural shenanigans.
What makes this series so refreshing is its portrayal of Mae. She’s an oddity among teenage girl characters in that she’s a sexual being extremely comfortable in her own skin and confident of herself as a human being. Rather than angsting constantly about her lack of supernatural abilities (recall, Nick is a demon, Alan has been immersed in the supernatural world all his life, and Jamie has magical powers), Mae is happy to be herself. ‘I want things’, Mae tells Nick when he reminds her that, as a demon, he could make things happen for her, ‘but I want to get them for myself.’ She calmly recognises that as the non-magical person of the group she’s the weak link, and coolly asks Nick to mark her for possession to prevent any other demons from doing so. She’s attracted to Nick, she’s attracted to Alan, she’s attracted to Seb, but she’s honest about her feelings and never descends into soap-operatic love-triangle drama.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the development of the relationship between Mae and Nick could’ve been exactly the kind the quote above describes. But the two of them, dangerously genre-savvy, consciously reject and ridicule it. Rather than Mae’s love of Nick being the thing that keeps him from raging out of control at the end of The Demon’s Lexicon, it is his brother Alan’s love that keeps him earthbound. He wants to learn how to be human not out of love for Mae but because he knows it matters to Alan. And Mae herself is under no illusions that Nick is different or ‘more human’ than ordinary demons. To put it bluntly, he’s no tortured Edward Cullen and she knows it. She doesn’t think he loves her, she doesn’t think he’s a good person, and she doesn’t believe that she can change him.
Covenant ends with Mae recognising her growing feelings for Nick, and him apparently reciprocating, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Rees Brennan ultimately intends for them to end up a couple. I think it’s far more likely that the series will end with both of them in the same messy situation they were in when it began – mutual attraction, confused feelings and nothing resolved. And that’s entirely the point. This series is not about epic, soul-redeeming romantic love. Instead, it’s about the power of family – families that are made, not born – and the fact that human feelings are messy and don’t fit easily into conveniently-labelled boxes. It’s a brave statement, and one that goes against the grain of hundreds of years of romantic fiction, and I applaud Rees Brennan wholeheartedly for it.
*Another commendable thing about this series is the depiction of Jamie. He’s an openly gay character who does not angst in the slightest about his sexual orientation. In fact, when Mae is upset that he didn’t tell her about his magical powers, even though he was perfectly comfortable telling her about his homosexuality, he angrily retorts that being gay doesn’t hurt anybody, but magic does. I wanted to stand up and cheer Rees Brennan for this. What she said (through Jamie’s mouth) shouldn’t need to be said, but the depiction of gay characters in mainstream fiction is appalling. Most depictions still revolve around the ‘coming out story’, as if that’s the only thing that matters to gay people. I’ve read, time and time again, arguments that gay characters, and in particular gay teenage characters, need to be depicted in ordinary, getting-on-with-their-lives stories in the same way that heterosexual characters are, if we’re ever to see a complete change in attitudes towards LGBTQ people in society, and I applaud Rees Brennan for doing so with Jamie. I’m not reducing this to a footnote because I think that it’s less important than the Nick/Mae storyline, and will be blogging about Jamie some time next week.