REVIEW: THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS
I have always been a huge fan of any piece of fiction that tries to tackle good and evil. I don't mean the cheesy heroes vs villains plotline, but rather the type of narrative that questions what good and evil are. The hard truth about these abstract concepts is that they aren't actually that easy to define and when a story acknowledges this, things can get very interesting. Melissa Silvey's THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS seemed like the type of book that would either indulge this interest in a delightful way or disgust me with stupid unrealistic romance between a shy girl and a bad boy (THE bad boy actually).
HOW I CAME UPON IT
Before touching upon where this fell for me, I need to mention that the author provided me with a free copy of the book. We met on a Goodreads forum and found we had an interest in each others work so we gave each other a freebie (she gave me 2). This lady has like 17 or maybe even 19 books self-published which is crazy to me. Most of them are more on the erotica side or at least have an important sexual component to them, which generally isn't my thing, but she has a couple that deviate a way from that theme a but, THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS being one of them (kind of).
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 This wasn't a total hit for me in every aspect. There were certain things that I didn't appreciate and certain parts that I enjoyed less than others, but overall, I found that I really like reading it and for me the later portion of the book made up for things I was less thrilled about. So without further ado, I will delve into the good, the bad, and ... the sexy.
In my opinion, what is often most lacking about romance novels in general is, ironically, the characters. Now, romance is tough to pull off since everyone has a different take on how it should be and often times it is extremely easy to fall into tropes. Fortunately, the characters in this story are actually quite well done - for the most part (we'll get to this later). Emma is our protagonist and by the time we meet her at the novel's opening sequences, she is effectively a very depressed crack whore who is on the precipice of taking her own life. She dares a God she doesn't believe in to take her from this world as she shoots up with something unsavory and the next thing she knows, she's in a beautiful mansion. She's not in heaven though, in fact, she's not dead at all. She's been rescued by a silent and mysterious man who calls himself Luc (as in Lucifer, Satan, The Devil). He's a mix of terrifying and irresistible as far as Emma is concerned and thus begins their "bad romance."
The relationship between these two works extremely well as a centerpiece because the prince of all things evil is genuinely infatuated with Emma and she with him. He scooped her up and revived her will to live at a time when she could not get any lower. She's not only familiar with the darkness, but also attracted to it and so she still has feelings for Luc even though she knows who he is (knows what he is). As you might imagine, a relationship really doesn't get much unhealthier than this. There were a number of times where I feared that this romance would devolve into the now formulaic pattern of a shy soft spoken girl changing the handsome monster into a good guy, but fortunately the novel never steers towards this direction. Instead what we get is a decently intelligent metaphor for how evil can come and seduce us during times that we fall into despair. While I can't say more without getting into spoiler territory, I do want to say that this unlikely romance story really worked for me from beginning to end.
There are also some really lovely minor characters! Romance books in general tend to fall flat in this department, but personalities like Father Peter, Rosa, Peter's silent guardian angel, and the Archangel Michael. These presences add a lot to the story and the world and at no point did I feel like anyone should have been used more. The balancing of when to have a side character contribute and when to keep the focus on the main characters is one of the more masterful elements to this work.
The story is set in modern day America. There's a very stark contrast between the fortunate and the unfortunate in terms of material wealth. We see Emma go from a suicidal alley junkey to what could effectively be thought of as princess status. The dark alleys, glittering home of Luc, seedy satanic locales, and cozy private school that Emma attends all offer a nice variation of locations throughout the course of the story. There isn't necessarily anything special about the world on a baseline level. That is, if you were a regular folk living in this world, then there would be nothing you might find to be overly noteworthy or strange to you. What makes it stand out is that Emma no longer gets to be one of the regular folk. The morning that she wakes up in Luc's home marks the beginning of her prolonged descent down a very dark rabbit hole.
Luc opens her eyes to the spiritual side of the world. He shows her life as he sees and understands it and this effect only grows stronger as the story carries on. I mentioned before that Peter's guardian angel plays a part in the story and as you might have guessed, the story gets more and more concerned with the spirit world as it moves forward. Angels, demons, God, and Lucifer: it all starts to come together for Emma. Even on a more down to earth level, she sees how many humans strike up an intimate relationship with the prince of darkness in exchange for their earthly desires.
I mentioned before that there were aspects of this that just didn't work for me. A lot of those have to do with this particular area of the work. A lot of the plot has already been covered in the CHARACTERS section of this review, so I'll skim this side a bit. Much of the first half has to do with all of the different character interactions as well as Emma's introduction to the dark side of the world. Beyond that, it would be tough to provide any concrete comments without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that it gets more and more intense until the climactic final chapter which sports an ending that is both somewhat surprising AND makes sense in the context of everything that happened leading up to it. I also felt like the story gets more and more insightful as it goes on in terms of how it delves into the core concepts that we associate with Christianity's understanding of good and evil.
Tonally, this is a very creepy tale. Even the parts that I think were intended to be sexy were just plain terrifying to me. Luc's descriptions in particular were quite harrowing since he masquerades as this flawless figure yet we know that there is a hideous beast that hides within. There's this really eerie feeling to it all that only gets darker with time. The tone works...for the most part.
While the weirdness is great, some of the style when it comes to language is not. Certain lines felt like they were worded sort of funny and I had to read them a couple of times to get it. I don't know that there was all that much that was editorially wrong with the piece, but my preferences with word choice and sentence structure are definitely a bit different from the author's
The piece that really soured the whole experience was the behavioral patterns that I found degrading to both men and women. While some of the more minor gripes related to this can be reconciled with the way things end up, there are other issues that cannot be excused. For example: right in the first few pages we are told a story about how Emma was repeatedly raped by her grandfather who it sounded like she lived with for some reason (we later find that her parents died in a car accident, but I don't recall that being explained early on). It is also implied that this man did the same thing to his own wife (Emma's grandmother) who he claims he killed. This is not only disgusting, but also something that the author really had no business throwing at readers so early into things. In fact, I nearly stopped reading because of this little side story. On a fundamental level, the sexual abuse does relate to Emma's character and it does help us understand why she is such a submissive and desperate personality. To be clear, I don't believe in artistic censorship, but darkness in fiction must be EARNED. It's not something that authors can use however they please which is a common misconception in my opinion. This dark part of her history should have been slowly hinted at and alluded to over the course of the novel, not just hurled at readers who are left to process that information.
This may all seem like a bit of a rant, but it's something that's very important to me as both a reader and a writer. There is also definitely a pattern here of men being portrayed as sexually ravenous predators and women as helpless little victims. This is the type of trope that constitutes a lot of my disdain and general disrespect for erotic romances and I thought it was unfortunate to find it exist in a piece that is otherwise quite intelligent. While I certainly think people will be pleased if they stick with it, there is also a large chance that you will be too offended to break through the initial rockiness of this story. This point also leads into two other components to the narrative that may or may not affect your enjoyment of the novel depending on what you like.
While this isn't normally a criteria I'd use to review, there's certainly cause to include it in this case. While I wouldn't label this as a piece of erotica, there's definitely enough sins of the flesh in here to warrant saying that sex is a huge part of both the relationship depicted and the story in general. This isn't the sort of thing that I look for in a novel (in most cases I try to avoid it), but its depicted in such a way that adds to the story rather than distracting from the main story thread.
If you're the type that just doesn't like this sort of writing ever for any reason, then you're definitely better off selecting something different because there's enough here to affect your enjoyment of the story itself if you are 100% against it. If you don't mind it in context or its something you actually look for in a novel, then this will probably only add to your enjoyment level. Personally, I could have done without some of it, especially since most of these sequences are very clearly written with a female audience in mind. That's not to say there's nothing here for guys as I was a little shocked by how affected I was during one or two moments (there may have been a blush or two as they say), just note that most of the more sexual prose revolves around the prince of darkness's scorching body (no really, it actually burns to the touch).
Not often would I think I would need to mention both religion and steamy romance in a review, but in this particular piece, its an absolute must. Fundamentally, this story really can't escape from the core Biblical concepts and while it might be an odd pairing, it's one that happens to work in this case. If you're not a fan of religion then you may or may not feel annoyed by this work. I can't really say for sure since the section above is also a recurring theme. Basically If you are anything from a practicing Christian (who happens to like sensual literature I suppose) to someone who has a passing interest in the literary significance of the Bible, then you will probably be really into this component. If you're anyone else, I certainly don't discourage you from reading it, but I also have no idea if I would endorse it for this reason.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS is a novel that tries to be as smart as it is sexy and for the most part, I think it did a really good job. This is a work of sharp contrasts: the sparkling mansion of luxury vs. the hot and filthy demonic sex chambers, the sweet-ish natured Emma vs. the inventor of evil, and scenes of lavish intercourse vs. messages about virtue. It's not just good vs. evil, but rather good and evil all mixed up into the confusing pool that is life. I took serious issue with the opening sections and had my reservations through the middle, but an astoundingly well crafted final leg of the journey really helped this be more than something that was genuinely memorable and made me think in the way that I wanted to. It's not the most accessible story in terms of the content or tone, but it is one that I was glad I made it to the end of.
Available in eBook format on Amazon.