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Let's put this in perspective
on 4 August 2009
Carey is a clever guy, a good writer and someone who has written some of the most interesting fantasy and horror comics of the last decade. But this novel, the first in his Felix Castor series, is distinctly average. This is simply what it is, the first in a series of supernatural whodunnits, and obviously it has a lot to set up (the universe we find ourselves in, the rules, the background and the soon-to-be regular characters) but it takes too long to do all that, unfortunately, and suffers a little as a standalone novel in its own right.
Carey presents an alternative London, one he's partly borrowed from Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere' (a series Carey clearly loves because he adapted the 'Neverwhere' novel into a comic book series), but 'The Devil You Know' lacks the full three-dimensionality and sense of fantastical history of Gaiman's hidden London novel. Carey's London is one full of all forms of risen dead and other supernatural beasties - ghosts, zombies, succubi and werewolves. As I say, there's a lot to set up and Carey takes a fair stab at introducing us to a world that is very like our own, except that the supernatural is just a little more commonplace than we're used to. Carey dabbles a little in the legal and social consequences of such a world, but that's hardly his main focus.
Our view of this world comes via Felix Castor's first person perspective. Castor is an exorcist, a job that is slightly more commonplace in his world than ours, though Castor is also basically a gumshoe detective (by any other name), a smart-mouthed cynic with little money, few job prospects, and even fewer friends, who gets dragged reluctantly into apparently simple cases but quickly finds himself in over his head. Here he's brought in to investigate... sorry, exorcise a veiled ghost haunting a place of work. But what starts out as a seemingly simple case becomes increasingly complicated as Castor finds himself dealing with police, gangsters, rogue exorcists and even demons. What you get, if anything, is stylistically more akin to Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, or even Inspector Jack Frost, than John Constantine (for those of you expecting more 'Hellblazer'-type stuff from Carey), it's just that this private detective novel has ghosts and monsters in it. It's a neat trick and overall Carey just about carries it off.
As has been said elsewhere, there's a lot of padding in the story - some of it is necessary to set-up Castor's world and back story, but arguably this 470 page book would have been better had it been trimmed down by about 100 pages. There's just not 470 pages worth of story here, unfortunately. Some story elements could have been easily jettisoned or tightend up, which would have produced a far less flabby and much more punchy opening to the series.
The characters vary in how interesting they are. Castor himself is promising with his world-weary atheism and smart mouth, but he seems to have limited abilities in this first novel. Too often Carey doesn't seem to know what to do with the character. Thankfully this is resolved by the second book of the series, though if anything he perhaps becomes a bit too much of a superhero or a James Bond-style hero by then. Here Castor is perhaps a bit too passive and indecisive, even pathetic at times, but by the second book Carey has perhaps toughened him up a touch too much. It'll be interesting to see how things develop with the third book onwards. Other characters are less well developed, in some cases because they don't need to be, and in other cases because they get further coverage in later books. The supporting cast, like Castor, show potential but at this stage that's all.
In the end, this is a promising start to a series that has the potential to be something really interesting. The second book in the series represents a big step up in terms of quality and although I guess you could skip straight to that you'd perhaps miss out on a few nuances and story-arc plot points in the process. But if you like the idea of what is basically a twisty-turny supernatural detective thriller then this should deliver most of what you'd what. It perhaps lacks some of the magic, awe and wonder that Carey has offered in comic book series like 'Lucifer' but this is aimed at a considerably more mainstream audience so it should come as no surprise. Anyway, this is a good start, albeit not a great one, but the second book, 'Vicious Circle', is where things definitely start to pick up. See this as the appetizer before the main course perhaps.