For most people, realizing you don’t really know your parents at all is precipitated by small-scale discoveries. I, for example, recently discovered that mine buy smooth peanut butter instead of its crunchy sibling, and now I’m wondering if I’m a changeling. For Amber, the main character of Derek Landy’s Demon Road (HarperCollins, 2015), this moment is a little more life-altering. Her parents, who previously just seemed a bit weird and distant, are demons and they want to kill and eat their daughter. I cannot speak definitively about what kind of peanut butter they buy.
The most important point to make about Demon Road is that it is tremendous fun; rarely does a novel make me laugh and want to hide behind a cushion, which this book accomplished regularly, often simultaneously. Sixteen-year-old Amber may think her life with her unaffectionate parents is boringly normal, but the opening sentence makes clear that everything is about to get very weird, very quickly: “Twelve hours before Amber Lamont’s parents tried to kill her, she was sitting between them in the principal’s office, her hands in her lap, stifling all the things she wanted to say” (page 7). If you’ve ever thought your parents were a nightmare, they’ve probably got nothing on Bill and Betty, with whom Landy manages to achieve the significant feat of creating villains who are genuinely chilling as well as amusingly evil.
Having escaped her parents and now accompanied by the enigmatic Milo, Amber embarks on an epic road trip across the USA, stretching from Florida to Oregon, Nevada to New York. I like to think of Milo’s Charger as being like Indiana Jones’ plane, whooshing across a map to demonstrate this trans-continental escapade. If you’re worrying about Milo’s carbon footprint, rest assured he has a very interesting and environmentally friendly fuel solution. The road trip lends structure and pace to the novel, as well as a pretext for numerous diversions from Amber’s principal mission of seeking an AWOL demon to appease the Shining Demon to whom her parents are in thrall.
Like so much of current YA fantasy, Demon Road features a protagonist struggling to understand and control new powers, because–what are the chances?–Amber is a demon too, which means she has tremendous strength and an unquenchable desire to demonstrate her new abilities on unsuspecting motorists at truck-stops. There’s something quite odd at the root of Amber’s shifts into demon-state, as she initially finds herself provoked by being taunted by teenage boys for not being attractive. The vigilante aspect of Amber’s newfound powers jars slightly, but she is refreshingly free of the complaining and self-pity we often see in newly magical fictional teens.
Landy’s characters are hugely entertaining, with countless hilarious exchanges between everywoman Amber and dry Milo. My favorite character, however, was Glen, a wanderer acquired by the others along the way. Glen, a misplaced Irishman with a supernatural mission of his own, is an innocent. He offers ridiculous musings on all aspects of American life, as well as his mistaken belief that he is a ladies’ man.
“I’d love to have been a Scientologist,” Glen said, “but I was never that good at science. I’ll say one thing for the Mormons, though – they love their straight roads, don’t they? I doubt Scientologists would have been able to build roads as straight as these, what with believing in aliens and all. Theirs would be all bendy.”
Amber frowned. “Why?”
“Well, because they’d be looking up all the time, wouldn’t they?” – page 230
Aside from such insightful religious analysis, Demon Road contains its fair share of violent set-pieces, as well as a dizzying array of supernatural creatures. By the end of the novel’s hefty 508 pages, these interludes have reached mid-season-of-True-Blood levels, with vampires, creepy dollhouses, and mysteriously powered cars providing endless delays to Amber’s mission. At least one of these supernatural adventures has no impact on the plot (although perhaps will become relevant in the sequel, Desolation, which is out now too) and seemed superfluous; while entertaining, by three-quarters into the book, I was rather more interested in how the main plot was going to be resolved than in the magical dealings of newly-introduced and minor characters.
Milo sighed. “When you’re on the Demon Road, you don’t really talk about the Demon Road. It’s considered…crass. You can mention it, explain it, all that’s fine… but just don’t talk about it. And don’t call it that, either.”
“What, Demon Road?”
“Yeah. Try to be, you know… a little cooler about it.” – page 133
If The Hunger Games is for teens who feel persecuted by the world, and John Green writes for adolescents persecuted by their tragic backstories, then Demon Road carves out its own niche for young people who feel oppressed by their parents. There’s nothing like a book about someone’s parents trying to eat their soul and offer it up to the Devil to put your own problems in perspective. I’m intrigued to see what Landy has in store for Amber in the follow-up.
Demon Road is available now at GPL.