Richard Lewis has become one of those authors whose books I read as soon as they are released. Every since his first book, The Flame Tree, I have enjoyed reading his intelligent and unique take on the young reader genre. I have enjoyed interviewing him via both podcast and email. And I check in on his blog regularly.
So I was eagerly anticipating his latest release The Demon Queen and it didn’t disappoint. At this point I may not be the most unbiased observer, but I found Demon Queen to be full of interesting characters and a entertaining blend of action, suspense, and horror. It also weaves in an interesting perspective on our post 9/11 world.
Here is the basic plot from the publisher:
Jesse is a boy with a mysterious past. In and out of foster homes his whole life, he believes he was abandoned in Los Angeles as a baby. When he comes under the scrutiny of Homeland Security in an incident involving a mistaken identity, he starts learning some unsettling facts about himself.
Now he is living with the Mindells in a small Midwestern town, and for the first time he feels like he may have a real home — until Honor Clarke shows up. Ever since Honor and her mother moved back to town following the gruesome death of Honor’s father, strange things have been happening. Someone is murdering birds and painting odd symbols all over town, and Jesse feels as if he’s losing his mind. He starts to see a man no one else can see, he is having violent nightmares, and it all seems to be leading to one conclusion — he is here for only one reason: to fight the evil that is Rangda, the Demon Queen, and her loyal follower, Honor Clarke, no matter the consequences.
At one level DQ is a rather straightforward teen horror novel. Loner, but kindhearted, orphan boy finds himself in the middle of a dark plot and must fight evil to save himself and the community. It touches on the cruelty of adolescence and the awkwardness of relationships between the sexes at that age. You have the ugly class bullies and the loyal sidekick. You even have the trusted adult who turns out to be at the heart of the evil plot.
All of this Lewis handles well. Both Jesse and Honor are interesting and well drawn characters when seen from this angle. But what makes things more interesting, and gives it an added edge in my opinion, is that the international flavor Lewis brings to the plot – Indonesian mythology and characters, etc. – also connects to the war on terror and the changes in the world since 9/11.
Lewis touches on a number of potentially controversial subjects from Christian fundamentalism, small town parochialism, and the deeply flawed American adoption system to belief in the supernatural, the nature of evil, and incarceration and interrogation in the age of terror.
For Jesse these questions are very real because they directly impact his life. His precarious legal status and unique identity means he is constantly at risk of being thrown into the ugly side of all these questions. On the most basic level of being turned in, roughed up, and deported; and in the supernatural realm of facing the evil that has been unleashed alone and without allies.
What makes Lewis’s take more interesting is that he avoids the temptation to turn didactic and instead leaves the reader with questions instead of clear answers. Just when you think he is developing an anti-fundamentalist take the plot switches. When the legal system seems stretched to the breaking point in anti-terror enthusiasm (or fear) he shows the dedication and decency of those involved.
For Lewis, it seems, there are rarely clear cut good guys and bad guys, or systems, but instead always messy human beings with all the baggage and confusion that brings. And despite all the excitement and action that comes from a unique mythological creature threatening to take over the world, the real horror Lewis describes is being a young person alone in the world without a family; without a refuge from the chaos and danger. Whether that is a new junior high school, the foster family system or the legal system in an age of terror it really is a horror story.
This is not to say the less ideological/current event aspects aren’t exciting. The mythology Lewis brings gives the book a unique plot and style. Instead of witches and wizards, or traditional psychopaths, we get shamans and goddesses battling across time and space. All set in an Midwestern university town.
I hope the above has convinced you to check out Richard Lewis if you haven’t already. He really does bring a unique perspective and style to the YA genre. If, like me, you enjoy reading in this area – or if you are just looking for something different and challenging for your younger readers – Lewis is a enjoyable find. I highly recommend The Demon Queen to readers young and old.