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The Demonists
by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Roc, $15.00, 336pp
Published: April 2016

Last time I reviewed a Thomas E. Sniegoski novel, it was the sixth book in a series; which, like much of his work, revolved around angels. The catch was that I hadn't read books one to five. This time, I'm in on the ground floor with the first volume in a new series, likely to be named for this book, and it has to do with demons instead.

I enjoyed it; more than that angel book, too ('Walking in the Midst of Fire' in the Remy Chandler series) and, particularly, because it kept changing up what it was doing without ever feeling like it was being untrue to itself. I doubt future books will be able to live up to that sense of reinvention; but, I'll be interested in finding out when the sequels start to appear.

Initially, it's a very modern paranormal investigation story. John Fogg and his wife Theodora host a ghosthunting TV show called 'Spirit Chasers' and it's when they're shooting a live Halloween special that things go horribly wrong. A jar spills out demons who massacre the crew, leave John for dead and possesses Theo. That could be the series: a team of ghosthunters tracking down evil and doing what they can to stop it.

But then it reinvents itself as a more traditional exorcism story. John leaves the hospital after six weeks, during which time Theo has been in a coma. When she eventually wakes up, she's obviously not herself; getting violent, spewing maggot-ridden vomit and grinning with sharp, pointed teeth. So John, with a serious depth of knowledge in exorcism, goes in search of a means by which he can free her. This really felt like it would be the series: one man's quest to save his possessed wife and encountering novels worth of stories in the process.

But no, we have the Demonists of the title still to discover, at least. We find out about them when John visits a monastery in the Carpathians, under which a library has been revealed by an earthquake. The monastery belonged to an order of monks called the Brothers of Heaven; the library belonged to the Demonists, a secret brotherhood who fought evil in all its forms. This library may be the key to freeing Theo! And clearly, now we know what the series will be: somehow the Demonists are still around and John and Theo will join them, once she's exorcised of her demons.

Well no, not quite. Sniegoski doesn't seem interested in telling any of the stories we might imagine that he's going to tell us. John enters the secret library of the Demonists about a quarter of the way into the novel and the story changes a few more times after that. There's a lot of transformation here, some literal and some metaphorical, but it applies to the book itself as much as anything in it.

I'm not even sure who the go-forward regulars are going to be. John Fogg is the most obvious, given that he's the protagonist of this book. I liked him, partly because he's a wish-fulfillment sort of lead; constructed from a host of real life archetypes as we would want them to be, but as they never actually are. Imagine, if you will, Indiana Jones as a ghosthunter on television, an unlikely combination but an enticing one because it takes a job that's quintessentially fake and shallow and fills it with someone who isn't just the real deal but has the education to back it up.

Theodora Fogg is a gimme too; in whatever condition she'll be as we travel forward through future novels. She fits the same sort of contrast because she's a medium who actually has the powers she says she has. Again, we see someone real filling a role that's traditionally fake. Yet, of all things, she reminds of a comic book character, someone that a Todd MacFarlane or a Brian Pulido might conjure up, a superhero who fits firmly in the horror genre rather than the Marvel universe. She has massive potential and could easily steal the series from her husband.

There are plenty of interesting characters in support who could thrive in the series to come, but I'm not sure which way Sniegoski will take things. Will he consolidate those who already support the Foggs, now that they've seen far more than they might want, and fashion them into their new team? Will he keep them firmly in the background and focus instead on the young FBI agent whom they help solve a missing persons case here in ways that she would never have believed possible? Surely the mysterious Elijah and his mysterious Coalition will factor strongly into future books but will they drive them as the team that the Foggs will join, will they simply show up often as paths cross, or will they be shown up as something other than what they purport themselves to be - maybe enemies rather than friends?

I'm not even sure what sort of genre this series will fall into. The first book is labelled urban fantasy, which is fair enough, but the series could easily move away from that. There's a lot of horror here and it wouldn't be difficult for the series to move firmly into that vein. However, it could become an adventure series instead, if the historical and archaeological angles are played up. I'm guessing it's going to be a combination of both, with only the balance up for debate. Of course, it could move more towards the police procedural side of things, albeit with a supernatural overlay. And the Coalition angle could move this towards a 'Warehouse 13' sort of fantasy. Only time will tell.

Whichever way Sniegoski takes things, I'm interested in finding out. With this opening book, he creates a lot of possibility. Any series that kicks off with the discovery of a secret underground library of hidden lore has insane potential; add in a secret organisation dedicated to fighting evil and this is rolling already. However, as neither concept is particularly original, something extra is needed and I believe Sniegoski provides that with the character of Theodora Fogg. Sure, her husband John is ostensibly the lead here, but he's not that original either. She's the one who will carry this series because she is.

She's a character far more expected for a comic book than a novel, but the writing here is smooth and confident and Sniegoski is more than able to add the sort of depth to Theo that it's difficult to get across in the graphic medium, where action tends to take over from character. The success of this series may depend more than anything on how the author can retain Theo's depth even as he throws her into wild action scenes. He clearly has the skill to do that, because he's sustained other series before now, but I wonder where his sympathies really lie.

Authors get attached to their characters and that can be problematic. A romantic would solve Theo's problems and kill the series, because what's needed is to maintain the problems she has even as John makes progress towards curing her. So the real question ties to how much Sniegoski is willing to torture his creations. Here's hoping that he's able to do that for quite a few books yet! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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