Bilquis SanGreal is fifteen, female and a modern-day Knight Templar, fighting the Unholy in between avoiding detention and the mean girls clique, and feeling like, you know, that no-one *really* understands her.
Holy crap, what a hook. It’s been a long time since I fell so hard for a book soley for its premise (and a wicked cool cover).
Bilquis’s father Arthur is the Master of the modern-day Knights Templar, a group who fight the Unholy to protect humanity against evil, for no reward or recognition. Bilquis (who goes by Billi) has had a pretty miserable life thus far. Her mother was murdered by ghouls when she was five, and, she was co-opted into the Templars by her father when she was ten. Since then, she’s been studying fighting techniques, ancient Latin and Greek and the occult arts along with regualr schoolwork, and now she’s now an active member of the Templars, banishing the undead back to their realm. Then comes the biggest danger of them along…adolesense. And Billi must figure out whether she wants to be a Templar or whether she’d rather hang out with cute tattooed boys in malls–and what she’s willing to sacrifice in either case.
Flipness aside, Billi’s dawning sexuality is at the heart of this novel, for it is key to the Templars’ fight against the Unholy. Chadda foreshadows the dangers of sexual desire in an episode where one of Billi’s chief tormentors at school is revealed to be pregnant, whereby her social position is destroyed immediately. Billi struggles to contain her own desires, which are fraught with potentially dire consequences, for they cloud her judgement at the most critical of times. But Chadda also shows that salvation–for Billi, for the Templars, and for the entire human race, ultimately lies in love. Whether sexual or romantic or maternal, love is indeed dangerous precisely because of the immense potentialities it contains.
There’ so much to like about this book. Bilquis is half Muslim (her mom is Pakistani, her dad (white) British)–a much-needed dash of diversity in the mostly monochromatic world of YA paranormal fiction. And although much of the conflict is framed in the language of Christianity, Chadda doesn’t exalt (any) religion–the Templars are mostly happy to use anything that helps them in the fight between good and evil. One of the Knights works with a Sufi mystic to hone his occult powers. The Templars’ wards against evil include a (Jewish) mezuzah. Vedic (Hindu) astrological charts are consulted to figure out the best time to go to battle. And Billi’s father “had told her that believing in God isn’t the same as believing in religion. …the prayers, the exorcism rites and the crucifixes worked in their fight, so Billi had learned them in the same way she learned the sword.” All this makes me…happy.
Devil’s Kiss is one of those novels that begs for translation into film or a game–lots of swords and axes, rooftop and catacomb fights, and last-minute swoop’nsaves. And just like those films, the action gets a bit repetitive at times, and comes at the cost of character development (more on that later). But first, props to Chadda for never making the violence cool; in fact, the first scene sets out how the Templars’ work makes Billi ”sick and hollow”. And it’s not just the wicked who die, but the innocent too, right down to little babies. While the idea of being a bad-ass killer is indeed seductive, speaking directly to the sense of powerlessness that many teens struggle with, Chadda is careful to show the devastating toll the violence takes on Billi’s emotional life. Much as you may admire Bilquis, you don’t want to be her.
I’d love to have praised this book without reservations, but it was not to be–none of the characters, not even Bilquis, were fleshed out to my satisfaction. Yep, I get that she’s angry she has so little control over her life. But all of her actions are predicated around this rather obvious fact and not much more, with the result Billi’s a two-dimensional creature, with sulks and sword-weilding skills and little else. Chadda just doesn’t give us enough about her to like her, let alone make that vital leap into empathy. And once you get past the Knight Templar job description, Biquis is an ordinary teen with ordinary woes, and Chadda has little that’s new or exciting to say about the latter.
Plot holes further undermine Billi’s character development. I can’t discuss most them without awful spoilers, but here’s a big gaping chasm: Billi’s been trained to kill the undead, to battle unarmed with werewolves and dark angels, and she’s overpowered by three untrained yobs on a London train? Worse, the entire episode is a weak contrivance to introduce another character–a handsome guy steps in and saves her. Devil’s Kiss can seem formulaic at times, and some plot turns are so close to the Harry Potter series that I was surprised the editors didn’t remark on it.
In sum, I’d say Devil’s Kiss more than delivers on premise, and would make a great game. But the execution is rushed, and I think the book might not quite satisfy those (like me) who like their stories driven by character rather than action setpieces. Is it wrong to wish that Phillip Pullman had written this book?
Devils’ Kiss by Sarwat Chadda
(Hyperion Book CH (September 1, 2009)
The sequel to Devil’s Kiss, titled Dark Goddess, will be out July 2010. Will I read it? Heck, yes!
Devil’s Kiss is one of my books for the POC Reading Challenge, which encourages us to read more books by people of color. Please visit them at POC Reading Challenge.
You may have noticed some changes in the blog’s appearance. The font was way too small for my poor old eyes, so I’ve gone with a theme that provided more readable text. The books on the header are from my bookshelf. I also thought I’d provide some details about the book reviewed at the end of each post. And I’m trying to post more regularly, aiming for two a week. Let’s see how that pans out…