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Book Review: Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil

Justin Gustainis

Solaris, 2011

After a bit of a delay, Justin Gustainis’ third adventure starring paranormal investigators Quincey Morris (savvy, tough, funny) and Libby Chastain (also savvy, also tough, also funny – and a practicing white witch besides), Sympathy for the Devil, has appeared, and this should prompt you to a) smile, and b) reach for your credit card. Thanks to Gustainis’ deft hand at pacing and exciting set pieces, thanks to his perfect timing with jokes and his sharp ear for dialogue, this series is one of only a handful out there on the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum that’s worth buying sight unseen.

As we’ve seen before, the series has a familiar premise, a daring team of paranormal investigators taking on every piece of deviltry and black magic that comes their way. Morris is a canny, seasoned, one-man army, and when it comes to sorcery, Chastain is rather charmingly far more powerful than she usually gives herself credit for being. Gustainis has developed a rhythm of writing their deadpan exchanges that never fails him – its reminiscent of the banter between the two leads on the TV series Bones, or the give-and-take between the Winchester brothers on Supernatural (provided Jared Padalecki were even more feminine than he already is), but it has a flavor all its own. By the time this third volume opens, our heroes have been through quite a lot together (although this doesn’t mean you can’t start the series here, if you missed the first two books – I watched for signs of that while I was reading it, and there aren’t any).

What they face in Sympathy for the Devil is one of the only dark magic phenomenon that’s actually been experienced directly by every single American: a Presidential election. Specifically, the candidate Howard Stark: tall, robust, charismatic, and, almost predictably, possessed by the demon Sargatanas (it goes without saying that both he and the demon are voting Republicans). This demonic Stark, with the help of his primly powerful aide Mary Margaret Doyle and his hired political hatchet-man Nestor Greene (“when you’re so dirty that even Karl Rove won’t take your calls anymore…”), turn his candidacy into a well-oiled machine of manipulation. As Sargatanas remarks at one point, “The only thing I dislike about human politics is that it sometimes makes me homesick.”

The poor voting public eats it up. Sargatanas turns out to be a smooth professional at crowd-pleasing, which propels him to the front of the polls on Super Tuesday:

Those assembled in the packed ballroom – excited, exhausted, and, in many cases, at least half-drunk – did not quiet down fully, despite their leader’s calming gestures. Stark began speaking anyway, reasoning that silence would quickly follow. He was right.

“First of all, I want to thank all of those good people, in California and in other states across this great country, for taking time out of their busy lives to come out and vote today.” Pause two beats, then continue, deadpan. “I especially want to thank all those who had the kindness.” Pause one beat. “And the good sense” Pause for laughter. “to vote for me!” Pause for sustained applause, looking both happy and humbled, if possible.

Gradually, Morris and Chastain become aware that something is rotten in the state of Stark, and for a while they have the tactical advantage, since the Stark campaign is so focused on the White House they aren’t initially aware they’re being targeted. In a neat little bit of stage-management, Gustainis makes duty the foil of dedication, since in order to get to the bad guy, our good guys will have to go through even better guys: the Secret Service.

The plot bubbles to a very satisfying climax that includes more helpings of deadpan humor. Indeed, the only flaw in Sympathy for the Devil is that the whole thing is animated by a rare misstep of insight on the part of the author, a misstep that’s underscored by the fact that by contemporary standards, Stark runs a fairly clean campaign (I kept thinking, “well, at least I know exactly what he stands for”). The underpinning dramatic tension of all supernatural fiction must be that it shows us the creepy possibilities that lurk just outside the light of our normal world, and in this respect Sympathy for the Devil stumbles badly. The American public – and the world – lived a story far worse than the fairly parochial evil Gustainis conjures in this novel. Unprecedented (and unprecedentedly vicious) social and political division, the loss of international standing, the despoiling of the environment, the erosion of civil liberties, two open-ended and unwinnable wars launched without political or popular referendum, an economy so mishandled the present-day world may not survive its collapse … these things aren’t the stuff of invention – they actually happened. And they weren’t brought about by a demon bent on world domination – they happened because a self-righteous moron spent eight years in the Oval Office. The dissonance of remembering all that and then reading about the schoolyard antics of demon-Stark at times threatens to drown out an otherwise extremely enjoyable novel.

Don’t get me wrong: I eagerly await the next Morris/Chastain novel. But my advice to Gustainis? When it comes time to think up villains for our heroes to fight, stick to vampires, ghouls, zombies, and ranting wizards. The alternative is just too damn depressing.