Sunday, July 22, 2012

REVIEW: Breaking the Devil's Heart by H. A. Goodman

H.A. Goodman's Breaking the Devil's Heart is a fast-moving urban/contemporary fantasy novel following the exploits of recently deceased 'Observers' (think Angels with more questionable morals) Stewart and Layla as they attempt to overthrow the corporation that is Hell and rid the world of evil. In this almost playful take on humanity's view of the afterlife, Satan has decided souls would be corrupted much more efficiently if Hell were a bureaucratically run company and the demons wore pinstripe suits while attempting to sell humans 'the Formula'. 

I firstly have to say a little bit about the context in which I review this book. This is the first fantasy novel (other than the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight) I've read that isn't epic or traditional fantasy. I gave it a go at the author's request and because I was a little curious to see how I would feel about the sub-genre. Keep in mind also that this read has been book-ended by A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows - not an enviable position indeed!

The first paragraph of this novel is an absolute winner (as is the opening chapter really) and it is clear from the onset that the novel has an excellent handle on the essentials - humour, wit, a good flow, a great vocabulary and a flowing structure. I was instantly engaged as the story was swiftly set up. 

Things then began moving a little too fast for my liking as Goodman wastes no time getting to the crux of the story; Stewart and Layla's quest to figure out how exactly Hell is corrupting humans with their sales of the Formula. In saying that however I must clarify that while we plow right in there, some elements immediately become repetitive and tiring.

My biggest problem with Breaking the Devil's Heart was that it was essentially written like one of my grant applications for funding. Through exposition and dialogue Goodman explains the details, the benefits and the outcomes to every little thing as if it were being presented to a panel for consideration, and they needed everything spelled out explicitly. Rather than letting the reader figure out that Stewart has particular knowledge of abductions and torture from his work at the CIA (which isn't hard), Stewart/Goodman had to give us every detail of his motivations and reasoning, which became very droll and unimaginative. While there was still a lot of passion in the writing, I felt it was quite bare bones and lacked subtlety. It could really benefit from being a lot more organic and from allowing the reader to experience the story, rather than have it being forcefully told to them.

Another frustrating element was how repetitively obtuse and unhelpful all the demons were that Stewart and Layla experienced. Even though every demon claimed they were being completely forthright and clear, it was obvious to all involved that they weren't and that it was a thinly veiled device to keep the story going for longer. Stewart actually said it best in this excerpt:

"I was losing my patience with what seemed to be a never-ending stream of hideous symbolic messages."

Well said Stewart! My only concern is that if the author recognised it through the inner dialogue of a character, why was it allowed to stay that way?

There are some great characters though in Breaking the Devil's Heart. The demons, in particular Franklin and Market Maker, are quite strong and give the story some robustness and some relief from Stewart and Layla's constant altruism.

The concept of the story itself is also quite interesting and well conceived, even though the delivery is hampered by the things I mentioned above. 

What I enjoyed the most, which was quite unexpected, was the ethical theory addressed in the book. I studied a variety of religions and ethics in college (including the notion of 'evil') and was surprised by the depth of the material covered and, in fact, the fresh ideas on evil that I had not come across yet - such as identification with a particular cultural group actually creating divisiveness and 'pride' which leads to evil. Goodman has obviously done the research and has a great analytical mind and eye for reasoning. While this is a definite strength in the book, it does however come at the price of the success of the more creative elements.

All in all, I think Breaking the Devil's Heart would be much more suited to a younger audience than myself, and probably for ones who are fans of the sub-genre, rather than die-hards of Brandon Sanderson et. al.

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