Juliet Dark is a pseudonym for Carol Goodman, two of whose literary suspense novels I read years ago: The Lake of Dead Languages and The Drowning Tree. I enjoyed them, and what I remember most are the mythological themes, the academic settings, and the beauty of Goodman’s prose, especially when describing water, ice, and snow. Recently Goodman has entered the fantasy field, first with the BLACK SWAN RISING novels (written with her husband Lee Slonimsky under the pen name Lee Carroll), which I’ve been meaning to read, and now with The Demon Lover.
I’ve had underwhelming results in the past with suspense authors crossing over into fantasy, but Goodman is a different kind of suspense author. She puts so much mythology into her mainstream books, and has such a talent for making the real world seem like a fairyland, that I always half expected the paranormal to show up anyway. In The Demon Lover, the paranormal does show up, and the novel does not disappoint.
Cailleach “Callie” McFay has always wanted to teach at NYU, so she’s not quite sure why she’s interviewing for a position at Fairwick College, way out in the boonies. But she is drawn toward the school and toward a vacant Victorian house near the Fairwick campus. It doesn’t hurt that the house once belonged to Callie’s favorite guilty-pleasure author, Gothic novelist Dahlia LaMotte (whether the name is a reference to A.S. Byatt’s Christabel LaMotte, I’m not sure, but what a cool touch if it is!) and the property includes the original manuscripts of LaMotte’s novels.
Callie takes the position, buys the house, and begins to have disturbing but sensual dreams. Even more strangely, as she reads through the manuscripts, she learns that LaMotte experienced the same visitations while living in the house, writing them into her books in spicy scenes that were left out of the published versions. Callie is being haunted by an incubus. Dark weaves the myths of the incubus and the ganconer (“love-talker”) together with the story of Tam Lin, and the question for Callie is, what kind of tale is she in? Is this the kind of demon that must be banished or, like Tam Lin, can he be redeemed from his demonic existence by the love of a human?
The Demon Lover has so much to sink one’s teeth into. Several types of supernatural beings. Academic politics. Witchcraft. A fairyland with hints of a rich, tragic history. Two troubled students, each with her own horrors to face. A scene-stealing, Jack-swilling memoirist. The cutest familiar imaginable. A type of demon that could only have been invented and named by a bibliophile. Lots of twists; the reader can predict some of them, but there are enough red herrings to keep you second-guessing yourself. The Demon Lover is the start of a trilogy, and I’m glad there are more books because I get the feeling there’s a story under every rock in Fairwick.
The prose is beautiful, especially when winter storms strike Fairwick (there’s that ice and snow again) and when Callie gets a glimpse inside the mysterious triptych in Briggs Hall.
There are a few minor issues one could nitpick about: a bit of too-expository dialogue near the beginning, a few ham-handedly symbolic character names, and a protagonist who sometimes seems older than her years (she’s part of that “self-esteem generation” she grumbles about, I think). It would seem petty to belabor them much, though, since the truth of the matter is that I read this book as though the pages were dusted with an addictive substance. The only issue that actually hampered my enjoyment was a decision Callie made at the very end. She asks a particular character for help with a situation. It’s clear to the reader that if that person can fix the situation, Callie is equally qualified to do so, perhaps with Elizabeth Book’s help with the technical aspects. But instead, Callie goes to this other character and strikes a deal. In return for information that seems intuitive anyway, Callie ends up owing a heavy favor. It does create a new conflict for book two, but it doesn’t quite seem to follow from what we’ve seen in book one.
In conclusion, though I didn’t quite understand one aspect of the ending, I loved The Demon Lover and am eagerly awaiting future FAIRWICK CHRONICLES novels. This is a spooky, sensual fantasy for literature geeks.