Thursday, August 23, 2012

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

 Stewart and Leyla are Observers, having turned down their chance to become angels. Not because they aren’t good and don’t want to fight evil – far from it. But angels labour under far too many rules and restrictions – they intend to take down Hell by any means necessary.

Hell has restructured, gone are the fiery brimstone pits and halls of the damned – now it’s cubicles, rows and rows of cubicles and officers – a corporate Hell where souls are bought and sold on the trading floor, where demonic telemarketers infect the brains of humanity

And teams of sales demons go to all parts of the world to peddle their Infernal Formula.

For Stewart and Leyla to bring down the Company, they need to find out what this Formula is and how to defeat it, along with the mysterious demonic Ponzi scheme. It’s a task that takes them into the depths of the Company and draws them to witness scenes of human evil – and hope – throughout history as they try to discover what drives humanity to such evil, trying to discover the very nature of evil and, through that, the antidote to it.

But not only are the answers far deeper – and more frightening – than they imagined, but we’re quickly plunged in the middle of plots within plots and a conspiracy far more cunning than I ever imagined.

This book is fascinating in so many ways, in particular in the way it makes you think.

Layla and Stewart’s quest to bring down The Company and end evil altogether leads them through scenario after scenario that truly does explore the nature of good and evil. We have some truly excellent consideration of the effect of time and place and culture on evil, raising uncomfortable questions about whether we, if we were brought up at that time, in that place, would commit the atrocities that so shock us through history. It raises nuanced and detailed questions about our white washed views of history – how the atrocities of our enemies often stand up starkly in our memories, but the atrocities we have committed, our culture and our society has inflicted, are so often justified, excused or brushed over as somehow less damaging and less atrocious.

It also has a deeply unflinching examination of the atrocities of the past. It’s graphic and it’s often disturbing – but if you’re going to examine human history, a history filled with war and torture and genocide and hatred, it should be graphic and disturbing. Not being graphic and disturbing is to ignore just how graphic and disturbing history actually is.

It’s also fascinating to see how this book examines the role of culture – and intolerance of other cultures – as the foundation of evil behind so much genocide. It has a very telling line about the only way to stop it is to “make apple pie taste bad” as generations of people fight, kill and slaughter in the name of their own cultural symbols. A person’s way of life being dominant is more important than someone else’s actual life.

And, of course, it very very powerfully  presents the idea that there is absolutely no need for demons to make people do bad things. We see demons urging people to evil, but we see equal – or worse – evil acts perpetuated by people who have no demonic urging at all. From the lowest level selfish crimes to massive scale atrocities – humanity is the source of evil acts and the whole “Ponzi scheme” relies on that

I think it fails a little more on the question of “ends justifies the means”, there’s some attempt to label this as questionable and wrong including pointing at the various ways it leads to evil. But at the same time the protagonists repeatedly engage in “ends justifies the means” behaviour, excusing and using torture when necessary. They may feel guilty and questionable about it afterwards, before or during, but they still do it and it still pays dividends for them – even as they chant “torture doesn’t give accurate information” they still do it. However, when they do do it is often for emotive and revenge purposes rather than information gathering – I don’t think at any point torture is used to effectively extract information, which is something.

I also really liked the twist of the war in Heaven, with the fundamentalists fighting the Angels because the Angels are just too liberal for them. It’s an interesting little addition to have all these restrictions and rigid thinking continue into even the afterlife – and the perils of arrogant judgementalism.

So this book has a huge amount of excellent, thoughtful positives. I would recommend buying and reading this book for that alone.

But there are problems – firstly, it started very slowly with a lot of extraneous information. After which we had the interview of Kenzo and the big tour of Hell that was excruciatingly slow. These ideas and concepts I love in this book take the place of the plot. A huge amount of this book is spent spelling out these scenarios and not even remotely subtle messages and lessons. Worse, they are repeated – over and over again – because the protagonists are two of the slowest learners imaginable and the demons trying to convey the messages to them are utterly incapable of spelling things out. Nor are the angels – as we saw with “heavenly charades.” Many of the scenarios just add further reinforcement to what we’d seen before – it’s repetition on repetition to drill in an interesting idea that has already been raised – then promptly gets overused until it’s worn and tired. The complete obliviousness of the protagonists, the convoluted way no-one could give them a straight answer and the endless repetition of the same points over and over again bogged this book down terribly.

For much of the book it felt like there was no plot and just a series of discussions – arguments even – to put these points across. All of which were then repeated. I think we actually lost the story in the urge to make philosophical points. They were great points to make – but the plot kind of wandered off while the book was making them and, ultimately, this is a fiction book, not a sociology text book. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be messages and food for thought – there should be – but there needs to be a plot as well.

I’m, similarly, not particularly sure what point Fate served in the whole proceedings. It added nothing to the story, the world or the lessons other than, maybe, to further repeat that circumstances can cause people to become evil – which was a lesson that had already been covered (and, later, would be covered again).

Inclusion-wise, it isn’t great either. While we’re looking at all the evil parts of history – and see plenty of evil from majority groups as we do from marginalised ones – the evil is all we see of POC and there’s no GBLT people at all.

But when the plot did emerge, it was a well worth the wait. After all those philosophical lessons we actually had a plan – a real, strong action plan for defeating the Company, which, even with evil being a human thing, was still a worthy goal.

Then there was a twist – a twist that blind sided me and I completely didn’t see coming.

Which was then overwhelmed by yet another twist that made the first twist seem mundane and predictable. It was a bit difficult to follow this twist and I’m still in two minds as to how realistic said twist actually was – but it was fun, exciting and another shock from a book that had already surprised me. It took a long - a really long – time to actually get going and get moving but when it did it was so completely original, exciting, packed with action and with a completely unexpected and even an epic ending.

In general, this could have been an epic 200 page book with a lot of thoughtful ideas, powerful imagery, an exciting and original plot and an excellent twist ending. Unfortunately, it’s 400 pages long, a pretty slow slog with an awful lot of lecturing. Frankly, I'm torn. The excellent ideas and thought provoking concepts make me want to give it a 4. But I can't deny that I nearly DNFed this book several times because it was so slow. 4 for concept, 3.5 for story, 1.5 for pacing and, alas, actual enjoyment because of it.

A copy of this book was provided by the author