I suspect Sarah Rees Brennan is well versed in the rich heritage of British fantasy stories for children. Shades of both Diana Wynne Jones and Nicholas Stuart Gray inform this well-written novel, a supremely accomplished debut from a young Irish author. The mordant dialogue echoes that of Gray’s trademark whimsical and wise-cracking magical beings, while the multiple twists of the plot recall Wynne Jones’ play with her readers – albeit in a much harsher, contemporary vein.
The reader is plunged headlong into a tripartite world of humans, magicians and demons – by no means in that order of power, as events will reveal. At the start, we’re in a domestic setting – the Exeter kitchen where two teenage brothers, Alan and Nick, are respectively cooking supper and mending the leak in a sink: ‘It wouldn’t have been so bad except that Nick kept his sword under the sink…’
The need for the sword, as for the brothers’ talismans, rapidly becomes clear, when an ‘unkindness of ravens’ flies into the room, shortly followed by two troubled classmates of Nick’s: Mae and her brother James. The pair have sought out Nick and Alan because of their reputation for assisting with ‘weird’ problems, but the brothers and their disturbed, reclusive mother, Olivia, are sorely in need of help themselves. They have been continually on the run from magician, Black Arthur, to whom Olivia was in thrall. It takes many cunningly handled and nerve-wrenching plot reversals before a temporary and very moving resolution is effected, preparing the reader for further revelations in a planned trilogy.
The strength of The Demon’s Lexicon – and also its power to disturb as well as entertain – lies in its highly convincing meld of fantasy and modern reality. In a reversal of the common genre pattern, magic erupts – often violently – into the characters’ everyday world. Woven into the magic/horror is an extraordinarily affecting and insightful tale of family dynamics, particularly that between siblings. Here the fantasy serves as a mechanism to power the psychodrama of the unwanted or ‘different’ child in a fragmented family, protected by brotherly/sisterly love. It is a thread of human light in a world where the only supernatural agency conceived is demonic. A mesmerising read for sophisticated young adults.