M.L.N. Hanover’s series, THE BLACK SUN’S DAUGHTER, gets better with every book. The latest, Killing Rites, advances the story of Jayné Heller’s growth, but it also continues to build the world in which she operates. Metaphysical questions about the existence of God and the nature of the demons start to become integral to Heller’s life. Furthermore, Hanover refuses to ever take the easy way out, always choosing the most difficult — and most interesting — plot twists over the development that a reader in the urban fantasy genre would expect. Hanover’s decision to always up the ante makes this one of the best series in the field today.
As Killing Rites opens, Jayné is attempting to deal with her realization at the end of Vicious Grace, the third novel in the series, that she has a “rider” — a demon who lives in her body with her. This demon has been nothing but good to Jayné, saving her life by taking control of her body whenever Jayné is threatened. But still, Jayné’s rider is a demon, and Jayné’s body is not entirely her own. (Kudos to Hanover for refusing the easy out with a conclusion that Jayné’s rider is an angel, not a demon; Hanover makes this refusal of the simplest explanation explicit.) Jayné has sought the help of Ex, a former priest who is one of her small “family” of demon fighters, to rid her of her rider. Ex takes her to New Mexico, where the group of exorcists with whom he had previously been affiliated (that is, before he left the Catholic priesthood) continues its work.
Jayné and Ex meet with Father Chapin, Ex’s mentor while he was in the priesthood and now the leader of the group of exorcists. He essentially refuses to help Jayné, at least just yet. Instead, he instructs Ex to have her see a psychiatrist to ensure that she is mentally healthy, as sometimes insanity can masquerade as possession. Ex is forced to admit that there’s a good possibility that Jayné is at least “shell-shocked,” as he puts it, given her sheltered childhood and the huge surprises she has encountered since her uncle died, leaving her all his enormous wealth. The fact that Jayné has just nailed a living man into a coffin, using the palms of her hands as hammers while he screamed and pleaded with her to stop, hasn’t helped matters. In fact, Jayné has been having horrific nightmares ever since, and Ex has been watching over her. Ex’s own feelings are also involved, as he yearns after Jayné.
But Jayné won’t have anything to do with the idea of a psychiatrist. She and Ex instead go to the priests’ sanctuary, arriving while the priests are in the middle of exorcising an Akkadian wind demon from a 10-year-old girl. The wind demon gets loose, and Jayné’s demon makes a dramatic appearance by saving the day. Father Chapin is forced to admit that Jayné has a rider. Given that the wind demon has been handily dispatched, it is possible for the priests to turn to Jayné’s problems, and they begin an exorcism.
And that’s where things start getting really complicated. Jayné learns the name of her demon: “I am Sonnenrad, the Voice of the Desert. … I am the Black Sun and the Black Sun’s daughter,” it proclaims. Now we know why this series is called “The Black Sun’s Daughter,” but we don’t know much more about this demon (even Wikipedia isn’t a big help, though it does suggest that Sonnenrad is a symbol of Germanic paganism adopted by the Nazis). And we don’t learn a great deal more about the nature of the beast, even as the priests labor to rid Jayné of it, even as Jayné seemingly changes her mind about whether getting rid of her rider is really the right thing to do. It doesn’t take long before the story becomes one in which Jayné ducks the priests in order to rid a child of a demon with the vigorous and necessary help of her own demon, work that eventually circles back to once again involve the priests.
Killing Rites is full of action at the same time that it is full of ideas and religious quandaries. Hanover meshes all these plot elements beautifully, creating a story that leaves one both hyped by the physicality of the plot (the demon possessing the child is described in a great bit of detail, making one want to wash one’s hands, if not shower for a good long time, after reading about it) and intrigued by the mystery of Jayné’s demon. And the thinking reader is forced to consider whether complete faith and absolute certainty are ever appropriate — a question that eats at the heart of every thinking person’s philosophy of how to live his or her life, how to approach his or her God, and even whether God exists.