by Christopher Brookmyre
400 pages, Abacus
Review by SF Winser
Ahhh... Chris Brookmyre. This guy has talent, fierce intellectualism and a deep love of explosions, blood and silly jokes. He’s a gamer and music tragic and these elements tend to end up in almost every novel. He’s the author of my favourite heist novel (‘The Sacred Art of Stealing’), one of my favourite spy/action novels (‘All Fun and Games’) and countless hilarious crime/satire novels.
He also has a few thematic obsessions. His current kicks at the moment seem to include: groups of high-schoolers coming to terms with their relationships with each other, rural retreats and science versus woo/magic/religion. To be honest, opening this book and finding these as the heart of the novel I had bought on the author-attribution alone... I did a little internal sigh. Again!?
But while Pandaemonium has all of these elements, Brookmyre melds them as successfully as any of his previous efforts. In fact, the underlying subtextual element of science versus religion is handled better than in his previous, thematically similar ‘Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’. Here Brookmyre keeps the conflict between the two less delineated, making the reading much more interesting and the thematic tension is maintained for longer for a more satisfying revelatory kick at the end.
The story here is about a group of kids from a Scottish Catholic high school being sent on a healing retreat after two of their classmates die in terrible circumstances. They have to come to terms with themselves, the situation, their feelings about God and the world...
And the demons that are attacking them. Literal, horned, tailed, bloodthirsty demons who have escaped from nearby military research station and seem to want nothing more than to kill them all.
These two aspects of the plot are both entertainingly handled, though the bloodthirsty, action hungry ghoul within me wanted the death and destruction bit to get there a bit quicker. The parts set in the research facility pre-breakout are a touch too long – especially the multi-paged, joke-and-action-light prologue and – I mention it again - the attack on the compound doesn’t start until well into the story. There are, perhaps, too many emotional redemptions and left turns to be completely believable, and the jokes are a bit lighter throughout than the typical Brookmyre novel. But these are easily forgivable.
Brookmyre has set up a hyper-smart horror novel. There are sex-starved, repressed teens, chainsaws, knives and terror. There are also discussions of high-level physics, theology and humanity.
A minor spoiler: One thing I loved – really loved – was the complete reversal of the horror novel cliché of ‘sex starved teen gives in to urges/dies almost immediately’. In Brookmyre’s holiday hell-camp, it is the most rabidly virginal who tend to die first, the kids who express or confess their sexuality tend to live. This is both thematically relevant and too cool not to have been deliberate.
It’s a lot of indulgent, intelligent writing – and I don’t see indulgence as necessarily being a negative. In this case, as with most of Brookmyre’s writing, the reader gets a real sense of the author just letting himself write without undue restraint. The action is handled brilliantly, Brookmyre has some sort of gift at rounding out characters and there are some clever literary things going on at the same time. Not the finest Brookmyre but a definite, solid bit of fun.