90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
“The Devil Pulls the Strings” by J.W. Zarek is a fun little sci-fi/fantasy/urban fantasy novel. The action is fast-paced, and the book literally flies by. An avid reader could easily digest this in a few sittings and possibly even be encouraged to reread it. It really depends on your taste.
We had very high hopes for this much-hyped novel. Something that surprised us about it is just how tame it is, even given the wild description at the back of the book. It's also very lighthearted. This book just doesn't take itself very seriously. It has this “feel” to it that's almost indescribable, it's like a cross between the Goonies, the Smurfs (in New York City), and the Mighty Ducks. Just think about that for a moment. This book that you would assume would be a pretty serious book about demonology and supernatural/paranormal forces coming to blows is really about a dude, a dude named Boone.
Boone Daniels is the star of the book, a renaissance fair hobbyist and musician who is supposed to be going through early adulthood. Supposed to is the key phrase there. Unfortunately for him, the crazy events that happen in the novel and his own inner-demons have stunted his growth and turned him into a sort of man-child. We'll get into that later because Boone isn't the only character who suffers from this.
Spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
Early in the novel, his best friend, Flynn, is badly injured in a jousting match at a Renfair. This ruins Flynn's opportunity to play guitar at a gig with his band, the “Village Idiots.” By the way, we are repeatedly encouraged to mourn Flynn like he's Apollo Creed or Aerith or Van Damme's mustachioed brother from Kickboxer despite us barely getting to know him.
Boone Daniels, being the noble white knight he is, fulfills Flynn's wishes by taking up the gig as the band's guitarist. The novel heavily focuses on him being able and willing to play a song by Italian classical musician Nicollo Paganini, a song said to have the power to summon the Devil. Yes, the Devil. And, yes, that also means that the title is a clever play on the idiom. Instead of the Devil pulling the strings like a puppeteer, Boone is pulling the strings of his guitar to summon him. Yeah...
So why would a pretty good albeit somewhat childlike man like Boone be coaxed into summoning the Devil? Well, it turns out that it just so happens that the Devil might be able to stop a malevolent entity known as Baba Yaga, a supernatural demon woman from Slavic myth. She's a threat to New York City, meaning she's a threat to Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, Ross, and Jerry Seinfeld. But WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
One of the reoccurring figures in this book is a wendigo that has stalked Boone since he was little. He has lived in fear of it ever since.
But WAIT, THERE'S MORE!!
Not only is Baba Yaga supposedly out to get everyone, and not only is there a wendigo out to get Boone, and not only did the Devil go down to Georgia, but there's also a secret society known as the Lavender and Roses Society that's working in the shadows. The Lavender and Roses Society is basically the Illuminati of magical artifacts in this novel.
But WAIT, THERE'S MORE!!!
Not only is Baba Yaga supposedly out to get everyone (especially New York City), and not only is there a wendigo out to get Boone, and not only did the Devil go down to Georgia, and not only is there a secret society known as the Lavender and Roses Society that's working in the shadows, but there's also a malevolent being known as Sinti who... is evil and stuff, and he's like really, really, really super evil... and stuff.
But WAIT, THERE'S MORE!!!!
Not only is Baba Yaga supposedly out to get everyone (especially New York City), and not only is there a wendigo out to get Boone, and not only did the Devil go down to Georgia, and not only is there a secret society known as the Lavender and Roses Society that's working in the shadows, and not only is there a malevolent being known as Sinti who is evil and stuff, but there's this dude named Todd. Freakin' TODD. Todd is the evilest, sickest, most depraved piece of crud walking the planet. And, of course, we're being sarcastic. But Todd is despicable! And what role does Todd play in the grand scheme of this convoluted plot, you might ask? Well, Todd is tantamount to that stereotypical frowny-faced bully from every show, or that one player from every “evil team” in every team sports movie who feels the need to heel it up by cheating, playing dirty, or picking on the protagonists or their families.
So, that's why this reminds us of “Mighty Ducks.” Todd's a professional jerk, that's what he is. And in a lot of ways, he serves as Boone's main human antagonist near the end of this. That's right, everything we've all been waiting for comes down to a Renfair jousting competition between Boone “the Backup Guitarist” Daniels and Freakin' Todd with the fate of New York City hanging in the balance. We kid you not. Do not change the channel. Do not unplug your earphones. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Do not close this book. This is the equivalent of the fate of the world being dependent on a basketball game like this is “Space Jam” or something. Do you kinda see why we said it's hard to take this too seriously?
Now, let's get to what we really wanted to talk about: the maturity of the characters. And this is where this story becomes “The Goonies.” The main characters, namely Boone Daniels and Sapphire, are supposed to be in their 20s. Supposed to be. They don't talk like it at all, and they sometimes don't act like it. It's almost hilarious in that regard. They talk and act like they're 12-years-old and haven't underwent puberty yet. They think or say things like “No take-backs” or they'll call the enemy the “bad guys” or the “bad men.” Another thing that comes to mind is when Boone undergoes a sugar rush or a chocolate craving. He eats chocolate bar after chocolate bar like he's a six-year-old with no self-control or sympathy for his teeth or pancreas. Now, yes, there may have been some practical reason with time/interdimensional travel messing up your blood glucose or something, but it's just not a good look for our hero whose maturity is already in question.
There's even a line in here by Sapphire after which the author admits she sounds like an organic cereal commercial, and she actually does sometimes. Even after they've been to multiple murder scenes and should be experiencing some kind of trauma, Sapphire is confident that she can get away with anything because her dad is rich.
Maybe it's just that we're off the heels of reading a book about a stranded crew during the Vietnam War and a book about being a fighter pilot during World War I –reading 20-something-year-old characters describe the enemy and their dire situations in ways that actually sound real and dire. It's harder to take the dialogue and character work in this seriously after that.
Now, what does the author do well and why is this book still rated relatively high? Well, it's some of the best pure fiction writing in this cycle. Aside from maybe a wrong word or two, the writing is pristine. Something that can either be annoying or effective depending on how you look at it is the author's use of onomatopoeia: words that illustrate the sounds that things make. For example, dripping water would go plop-plop-plop. A clock would go tic-toc, tic-toc. Machine gun fire would go rata-tat-tat. The author continuously uses this technique to engage the reader. However, at what point does it just become distracting, gimmicky, and/or overdone? It really depends on you as a reader. Take the movie Battlefield Earth for example. It took the gimmick of Dutch angles—camera angles in which the camera lens is slanted at an angle—to illustrate an alien or foreign world. The filmmakers then abused the technique so much that it became dizzying. But if you have a style that jives with you, then it jives with you. It's just something we noticed.
Something else that's pretty impressive about this book are the visceral descriptions of physiological responses to events. We remember one line in which Boone's ribs hit his stomach and another in which the hairs on his arms stood up.
All in all, this is a good book. You can check it out on Amazon!