God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe Review

Hell is a setting but never quite a theme in Wayne Barlowe’s debut novel God’s Demon; this explains both the book’s successes and its disappointments. At its best Barlowe’s novel provides a fairly typical, quasi-medieval fantasy story — in an infernal setting that evokes the primal otherness of games like Doom and Diablo.

Wayne Barlowe

But with the novel emerging based on Barlowe’s concept art for a forthcoming film adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Barlowe’s own interest in Dante’s Inferno, God’s Demon aspires to more. Unfortunately, Barlowe’s attempt to include classic questions of punishment and redemption, freedom and divine will evokes admiration, yes, but also the sense that these questions never really mesh with the story he is telling. The result is a work that may yield some visceral pleasure for epic fantasy fans, but feels muddled in plot, characterization and theme.

As the story begins, God’s Demon is very clearly a tale of two leaders and the cities they rule. Thousands of years after the Fall, the nominal capital of Hell, Dis, is a dirty cesspool of mistrust, torture and pain ruled with an iron fist by Lucifer’s lieutenant Beelzebub the Fly (Lucifer himself having mysteriously disappeared after the Fall). Adamantinarx, ruled by the Demon-Major Sargatanas, is in contrast clean, orderly, and as permissively “enlightened” as is possible in Hell. Adamantinarx’s “underlying openness was due solely to Sargatanas’ will,” muses Eligor, Captain of Sargatanas’s Flying Guard: “there was a difference, a nobility to this demon.” Eligor, as chronicler of the story, notes how Sargatanas always consulted “with each of his chief underlings,” “encouraged a degree of leniency toward the souls in his keeping,” and “promoted the growth of the Arts.” Beelzebub and his allied Demons find Adamantinarx to be an uncomfortable reminder of what they lost in their Fall from Heaven and their failure to hold to their Angelic dignity; Sargatanas, who yet yearns for Heaven, believes that Hell must be reformed before any chance of a Heavenly return will be granted.

And then there is Lilith, former consort of Lucifer, now prisoner and unwilling plaything of Beelzebub. Barlowe’s conception of Lilith echoes several folk traditions from the Middle Ages: she is both the ultimate object of sexual desire and also, as part of her creation and split from Heaven, a voice for rights and equality. While captive of Beelzebub she nevertheless launches her own quiet campaign that will break the détente between Dis and Adamantinarx. Thus the seeds of another war, a War for Heaven, are sown.

So, too, are the seeds of some of the novel’s core problems. The fundamental differences in ideologies between the core characters too often turn them into mouthpieces: characterization is rather wooden in the core cast and undifferentiated in the secondary characters. With Sargatanas’s “nobility” and “difference” from other Demons established from the start, he is never required to learn or grow in his single-minded drive to regain Heaven. (One might argue that expecting human character development in a Demon is a category error, but Barlowe’s Demons are very human: they fear and hope, hate and love — the latter even though their hearts have been symbolically ripped out.) Not only are we constantly told rather than shown when it comes to character attributes (as with Sargatanas’s nobility), but what we are told often contradicts what we are shown. We are told that the thoughts of Adramalik, Beelzebub’s Chancellor General, are “almost always of the here and now, and rarely” of the past — shortly after several long remembrances. Sargatanas may encourage leniency toward souls, but this does not stop him from shaping sentient souls into the raw building blocks of his “enlightened” city; his “nobility” does not stop his ultimately self-centered drive to resume his place in Heaven.

Indeed, the politics of God’s Demon are rather odd. Sargatanas is portrayed as an enlightened leader who strives to rule by consensus and to create an “open” city; he is pitted against the militant, autocratic Beelzebub. Yet Sargatanas also yearns to return to a Heaven that is a rigid autocracy. God is “the Throne” and is “surrounded by six-winged archangels, swords in hand, singing praises.” When asked what he will do if allowed to return to Heaven, Sargatanas replies simply that he will “wash away this place” and then “will wait to be brought before the Throne.” The “underlying openness” and “enlightenment” that define Sargatanas’s conflict with Beelzebub, the possibility of dignity in Hell, are thus difficult to credit as core elements of his value system. This is especially true given the rather gaping plot hole that Sargatanas’s quest initially is redemption for all his allies, but somehow, without mention or explanation, morphs into a quest of redemption for himself alone. Lilith, similarly, is presented as an advocate of “philosophies of tolerance” and “emancipation” toward the souls, a champion of their free will. Yet the statues of herself that she distributes to the souls to foster her “obvious message of hopefulness” engender visions in which the souls “worship” Lilith and “pray to her,” “prostrate themselves before her” — and these are hailed as “visions of freedom.” The underlying message, that serving a higher being is better than (or perhaps the only true) freedom, is a matter of personal belief; what’s problematic is the religio-ideological game of bait-and-switch created by these mismatches between story and theme.

God’s Demon is better when it can be taken for a straightforward feudal fantasy. Barlowe’s Hell has a strong medieval flavor: Beelzebub is Prince Regent of Hell; owing him fealty are the Demons Major (among them Sargatanas), each responsible for large areas of Hell; they in turn have a number of skilled Demons Minor as bondsbeings; and human souls serve the role of peasantry. Sargatanas organizes hunts for entertainment just as a noble Lord might; Demons fight with swords and bows (among other things), and ride on Abyssal cavalry. As an overthrow-the-unjust-ruler fantasy story, God’s Demon can be read as a more militant take on some of the same elements that made Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris popular: a relatively progressive leader; an original and intriguing magic system based on glyphs; a dash of romance.

And as mentioned earlier, what Barlowe does best is make Hell work as an epic fantasy setting. The base is the Hell of popular imagination: hot, dimly lit, shades of gray broken by fire. To this Barlowe adds an organic layer, cities that throb with a New Weird viscosity of biological systems and flesh.

They descended from the gate into the rough terrain that bordered the city. Much of it was covered with thick veins and arteries that fed the city, burrowing down under the city’s wall and rising up again from beneath the streets to snake upward, crisscrossing the facades of the archiorganic buildings. It brought the yellowish lymph-fluids that kept the bricks of the buildings, as well as the organs that provided other functions, supple in the searing heat.

Demons themselves likewise conform to the popular archetype — big and red, winged and horned — but Barlowe adds his own refinements to their physiology and magic. Combined with the setting and an assortment of monstrous creations, the strategy and tactics of the war between Sargatanas and Beelzebub give the battles between them a unique flavor.

The general staff saw the glowing line of Moloch’s cavalry begin its advance, gathering speed in the distance. Above them tiny sigils flared to life and command-glyphs began to dart from officers to soldiers. As they passed silently along the length of the bordering walls of flame they caught the light in such a way, Eligor noted, as to make them look like a glowing, onrushing flow of lava.

Barlowe adopts a writing style that is an appropriate mix of “high” language, that feels slightly more formal than typical transparent prose, combined with word choices that emphasize the horrific and tortured setting. “Most of the meaty exteriors were punctured by a window” is here meant both figuratively and literally. Barlowe does occasionally let the language get away from him: excessive commas and clauses render some sentences needlessly vague, and others simply make no sense in context.

For now, most [Demons Major] remain guarded and are sending only their emissaries. It will take more than one success on the battlefield before they come themselves, Eligor thought. Will they leave just as eagerly if he suffers a defeat?

The plot and pacing are much the same: largely good but uneven. The pace of the novel is smooth after an initial jumble that covers thousands of years, solidifying into a three act structure with a satisfying ramp-up of politics and skirmishes before a large-scale final battle. There are several surprises that in most cases Barlowe smartly reveals earlier rather than later; the ending offers resolution, but also enough open ends to feel “realistic” and to permit a sequel. In addition to the thematic issues with the plot, there is one notable inconsistency (concerning what happens to infamous humans in Hell) and the book’s ending turns on a somewhat unsatisfying “if character X could do that, why didn’t they do it earlier?” moment. And with all matters of plot there is the unasked question of how much occurs by Divine plan as opposed to free will and coincidence; to what degree do we accept deus ex machina in a novel about Heaven and Hell?

God’s Demon is ultimately a frustrating book. As a reader I want authors to be ambitious, to tackle big issues. I’d often rather read something that failed at being excellent than something that succeeded at being average. But in this case, the book’s ambitions so consistently derailed the storytelling that I found myself wishing that Barlowe had either devoted far more time to making the themes work with the story, or had scaled back on the thematic links between his work and the classics. Barlowe clearly has the imagination and writing skill to be a notable author, so it will be interesting to see what shape his future projects take.

Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.