Welcome back to the world of urban/paranormal/romantic/fantasy/noir. The latest passenger to hitch a ride on Laurell Hamilton's crowded bandwagon is paranormal romance writer Jenna Black. You know, I actually get quite a lot of paranormal romance from publishers, and most of it, I must admit, I roll my eyes at and shift it into the "don't bother" pile. I know this stuff has a huge crossover audience to SF and fantasy. But few of them, I suspect, have Y chromosomes, and anyway, it's all I can do to keep up with the mainstream SF and fantasy (if I may use such a term) that comes in every month.
Still, I thought I'd give The Devil Inside a try, as the urban fantasy aspects are more actively promoted here. Naturally, Black trades liberally in both urban fantasy's and romance's most popular clichés. Her protagonist is Morgan Kingsley, a tough-as-coffin-nails freelance exorcist with the outfits, tattoos, attitude, and perfect boyfriend to Mary Sue her way into a million readers' hearts. While the fantasy is at the forefront of the plot, Black keeps the romance content solid, which means plenty of porn. I know most men don't read romance novels, so you guys'd probably be surprised to find out that on average they can be as hardcore as whatever you last downloaded from any of the alt.binaries.erotica groups. If not harder. And reading one or two romances could give any guy easy tips on how to be an irresistible male, which generally falls under three criteria: 1) have a nearly superhuman degree of patience with your woman's flakiness and wild mood swings; 2) learn to enjoy the foreplay as much as the rest of it; and 3) work on that six-pack.
There is ample entertainment value to be had in The Devil Inside. And Black's premise is fresh enough to prove that in the hands of a naturally skilled writer, there's still some originality to be squeezed out of this cops-and-monsters scenario after all. It's a good book to contrast against something like, say, Ilona Andrews' Magic Bites, which never managed to overcome its inherent Dresden Files Lite character. Unfortunately, Black makes a big, ill-conceived blunder in plot logic right in the first chapter. And the book as a whole eventually goes overboard on the smut, leading to scenes that seem like little more than kinky padding. I think gay readers might also take offense at the story's two prominent gay characters, who are into the whole whips-n-chains S&M fetish thing. Every gay friend I've got never hesitates to bemoan stories that assume that being gay automatically means you're into deviant, kinky sexplay.
I enjoyed Black's fantasy setup, which is this: Demons interact with the human world by inhabiting human hosts. There are good demons, who have their hosts' consent to possess them, and bad demons, who are basically invading squatters. Demon possession is subject to its own set of statutes, which are upheld by special law enforcement operatives, many of whom are good-demon-possessed themselves, and exorcists, who work freelance like private eyes and are brought into to drive out bad demons from their illegally possessed hosts once they're caught. If you can't get hold of an exorcist, the only alternative is to burn the host at the stake.
But Black's story starts out sloppily. Morgan Kingsley is called in to exorcise an illegal demon from its host, a little girl. It's an ugly, risky procedure, because often the host ends up irreparably brain damaged. When Morgan arrives at the police station where the possessed kid is being held in a special containment cell, she immediately gives the detective in charge a tongue-lashing for poor procedure, such as the fact none of his staff is wearing proper gloves. An illegal demon can jump hosts by the merest touch, we're told. But hang on...where are Morgan's gloves? Why, if this demon is so dangerous, does she blithely waltz into this containment cell wearing only...let me find it...ah-ha..."a pair of tight low-rise jeans with a clingy sweater and a pair of kick-ass pointy-toed boots"? You'd think she'd have the exorcist equivalent of a hazmat suit the way she dresses down the cops for their own lack of protective gear. And if this demon is so dangerous it requires a containment cell that Morgan has to pass two checkpoints to get into, why the hell do the cops let the little girl's parents hang out in there?
Oh dear. Bad bad bad opening, Jenna. And worse that the whole subsequent plot seems to require this glaring plot flaw to get itself going. Yes, as you might have surmised, Morgan is unwittingly touched by the demon right before the girl is exorcised. But to Morgan's surprise, she isn't possessed. It isn't until she returns home to Philly that she learns the true reason: there's already a demon inside her of whose presence she's heretofore been entirely unaware. He calls himself Lugh, is devastatingly studly, and informs her (in her dreams, of course) that he's a VIP in the demon world — just how VI Morgan will soon learn — and that a nasty power play is underway that could see the bad demons, the ones who want simply to enslave humanity, gain the upper hand.
Just how high the stakes are comes home to Morgan when she suddenly finds her best friend turned her most vicious enemy, herself framed for murder, and various anonymous parties trying their best to kill her by unsubtle means. Black, happily, keeps this bit believable by having Lugh help Morgan out of her worst scrapes. We aren't treated to the inane, bad-action-movie spectacle of hopelessly incompetent villians who always let our heroine escape through convenient bungling. Morgan herself is rash and quick-tempered, and if left to her own devices wouldn't likely survive a day. In the end, it's only through the help of a good-demon-possessed cop, Adam, and his boyfriend Dominic that Morgan can find just what's up with Lugh, who's trying to kill them both, and why. The problem is, Adam hates her guts as much as anyone. Sometimes a girl can't catch a break.
No, Black doesn't hesitate to put her heroine through the proverbial wringer over and over again, even when she's already well-wrung. This gives the book some terrific tension and keeps the pacing energized. The Devil Inside eventually packs in sufficient suspense and entertainment value that I was willing to forgive the first-chapter plotting faux pas, as well as the rather excessive scenes of gay S&M that fill the latter half of the book, which read like nothing so much as Black's attempt to out-Laurell Ms. Hamilton. If you're the kind of reader already enamored of all these urban noir fantasies, and the synopsis of this one makes it sound like you'd really like it regardless, then you most certainly will. If you tend to be bugged by the little gaffes I've listed, you'll be less impressed. My three-star bottom line represents a compromise between my enjoyment of the story's fast pace and imaginative take on the supernatural, and my frustration with those elements of her storytelling where Black could clearly use improvement. The thing is, The Devil Inside leaves me confident she will improve, and I'll be looking forward to the second volume, which I hope will offer more demon-fighting and, maybe, not so much sodomy. Unless Morgan gets to play. Hey, we all have our kinks!