BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When the fallen angel Semyaza is released from an ancient prison into the modern world it is up to CIA assassin Mike Caldwell to bring an end to the chaos that follows in his wake.
PROS: Great antagonist; good supporting characters; authentic yet accessible writing; real horror; thoughtful ending.
CONS: Main character needs more depth; cliched use of dreams.
BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended for fans of Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, military fiction aficionados, and readers of horror.
I took a chance on Harper Voyager Impulse with Henry V. O’Neil’s military science fiction survival novel Glory Main. I was so impressed with the quality and originality of O’Neil’s writing that I decided to keep an eye on the publisher’s future releases. Reading the military supernatural horror story Demon by Erik Williams has only served to further cement my first impression — Harper Voyager Impulse is an exciting new publisher to follow.
The first thing that struck me about Demon was that Williams’s writing comes across like that of a less technical Tom Clancy…had Clancy developed an interest in the supernatural later in life. Perhaps it’s better to compare Erik Williams to Jonathan Maberry with the added benefit of military service. The martial aspects of Demon feel authentic without being overladen in jargon — it’s a comfortable middle ground for those of us who enjoy military fiction but haven’t served. The writing is crisp, clear, and professional. Williams is able to convincingly straddle the line between the real and the otherworldly.
Even though the plot of Demon involves a fallen angel, an ancient organization meant to guard the angel’s prison, and sort-of-but-not-really zombies it’s easy to suspend disbelief. The characters all managed to make rational decisions, when not otherwise motivated by intense fear. The progression of the protagonists’ understanding of the threat posed by the fallen angel is neither too easily reached nor too drawn out. Usually with these sort of things it feels like the protagonists magically reach conclusions with limited effort or take forever to do so with the answer bludgeoning them over the head. Fortunately CIA assassin Mike Caldwell spends an adequate amount of time for arriving at such a fantastical realization.
Mike makes for a decent protagonist though he might be the one weak link in an otherwise solid novel. Apart from the fallen angel Semyaza, Mike has his own personal demons to beat into submission. As a government sanctioned assassin Mike has terminated a great many targets in service to his country. Killing is his specialty but his conscience is beginning to buckle under the burden of so much death. Mike self medicates with alcohol but there is always another call from Langley, designating the next hit. Apart from Mike’s crisis of conscience, drinking problem, and death dealing abilities there isn’t much to the character. Readers are told that Mike’s a good guy despite all the killing by dead comrades in his “dreams” and Mike’s actions at the end of Demon go a long way to confirm this, but I’d still appreciate a little more personality. He works well enough as an action hero but I’d like to believe that there’s more to Mike Caldwell and I hope Williams dedicates more time to his development in the upcoming sequel Guardian.
Surprisingly it is the antagonist Semyaza that proves to be a much more interesting character. Semyaza is a fallen angel, a rebel against God that has been imprisoned for his crimes. He hates mankind for being made in God’s image and elevated above the angels and he’s doomed to imprisonment until he asks forgiveness…or until some contractors accidentally drop a sewer pipe on his tomb and release him into the unexpecting world. Semyaza might be free from the confines of his tomb but in a bitter twist of fate he must rely on humans as vessels to “survive” and he is bound by a curse that spreads chaos in his wake. Semyaza is the antagonist but it would be hard to classify him as a true villain — his motivations are understandable, even sympathetic.
Even the supporting characters are well imagined. Demon might not feature a full cast of multi-dimensional characters but characters like Major Greengrass, Yusuf, and Captain Temms allow for an extra degree of emotional investment. I felt a particular attachment to Yusuf and feared for his safety for much of the novel.
And I had every reason to fear. I don’t read much horror, or at least I wouldn’t classify much of what I read as horrifying, but Demon fits the genre. I was worried from reading the book description that there would be zombies. I’m bored by most zombies, though some authors have been able to impress me with zombies — authors like Jonathan Maberry, John Hornor Jacobs, and David Wong. I would add Williams to that list, though I’m still reticent to use the “z” word in association with Demon.
When Semyaza enters a new human host he must defeat the human’s spirit before he can take up occupancy. This battle for control of the vessel afflicts all of those nearby with murderous rage. Every time Semyaza jumps into a new body the people around him become mindless killers and start attacking each other until there’s one survivor. The survivor’s prize? Suicide. Demon is brutal and gruesome. Very, very gruesome — not at all for the squeamish. There is a high body count. Williams applies structure to this curse and sticks to it, grounding the fantastical in the believable.
The ending is one of the most unexpectedly satisfying parts of Demon. The majority of military thrillers I’ve read reserve a big, dramatic battle for the finale but Williams takes a different route that is just as fulfilling. It’s a Thinking Man’s ending rather than an Adrenaline Junkie’s. Do not fear — there’s a fair amount of action, but Demon also offers a bit more.
Demon is another big win for Harper Voyager Impulse. Readers are going to want to keep an eye on both the author and the publisher as I suspect there are plenty more great things to come from both. Guardian, the sequel to Demon, releases in January and judging by the synopsis it’s going to be killer.