BY SEAN CLARK
2011 Atria Books
Filed Under: Young Adult, Humor, Fantasy, Horror
A direct follow-up to Connolly’s wonderful 2009 book, The Gates, Infernals delivers everything you could want from a sequel. It’s another great adventure, and delivers all the wacky characters and narratorial humor that made the first book so exceptional.
After helping to save the world from an invasion from Hell, Samuel Johnson, with his trusty dog Boswell by his side, is trying to get back to a normal life. It doesn’t last long. The leader of the failed invasion, Mrs. Abernathy (formerly the demon Ba’al before he was trapped in the possessed body of Samuel’s elderly neighbor), seethes in Hell. The Great Malevolence–Satan–has fallen into a weepy melancholy following the defeat, leaving the underworld open to a tumultuous civil war.
Abernathy, in an attempt to restore her standing as Hell’s #2 demon, as well as save her own hide by preventing the traitorous demon Abignor from usurping rule, manages to open a small portal to Earth long enough to capture poor Samuel and Boswell. They will be an offering to restore the spirits of The Great Malevolence.
Mrs. Abernathy’s shot goes awry though—she hits Samuel and his dog, but also two policemen, an ice cream man, and a van full of drunken midgets who travel around reenacting fairytales in shopping malls. At first, these drunken midgets (Angry, Jolly, Dozy, and Mumbles–known collectively as “Mr. Merryweather’s Dwarfs”), threaten to steal the show. It’s not often I find myself laughing out loud when I read, but these crass little characters did the trick.
As the characters traipse across the sprawling and desolate underworld in search of a way home, however, the spotlight is shared. Samuel’s timid bravery, the demon Nurd’s newly found humanity, along with a large cast of inventive and often funny support characters each have truly great moments from which the story draws strength. Indeed, what sets this book apart from lots of other YA is Connolly’s balanced and skillful writing. He’s a captivating storyteller, and moreover he’s developed a real knack for breathing life into his world through a sharp yet subtle wit.
As with its predecessor, Infernals is littered with footnotes. These are often informative, explaining, for instance, a certain lineage of popes, what the Higgs boson is, or the definition of the word “truculent.” Yet they are all filled with jokes, jokes usually just juvenile enough to be silly but not so infantile as to be unworthy of your time. Though the narrator is not named, and has no plot of his own, his constant presence and sense of humor is crucial to the experience.
Here’s the ending to a footnote explaining Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments on dogs:
This is known as “conditioning.” You have to wonder, though, if the dogs eventually got a bit tired of the shocks and the bells and the absence of food, and made their unhappiness known to Pavlov. This is known as “biting.”
On top of it though, he manages to sneak in clever, even insightful lines:
the past is a nice country to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Then, occasionally, it dips into downright good advice, revealing a motive on the part of the narrator that touches on endearing.
Most people will spend their lives doing jobs that they don’t particularly enjoy, and will eventually save up enough money to stop doing those jobs just in time to start dying instead. Don’t be one of those people. There’s a difference between living, and just surviving. Do something that you love, and find someone to love who loves that you love what you do.
It really is that simple.
And that hard.
(That was a footnote to a line about two reformed demons brewing cheap ale in the basement of a chemical weapons plant.)
These footnotes and asides build upon each other to give the book a sense of character and purpose that’s pretty rare in YA books lately. And beneath it all is still a charming adventure that strikes a perfect balance between childish fun and maturity of theme and emotion. If you haven’t read The Gates, give it a read first. But be sure to have this book at the ready; you’ll probably want to try and read them both in one sitting.
Similar Reads: The Gates (Connolly), The Mysterious Benedict Society (Stewart), pretty much anything by Terry Pratchett.