Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Devil’s Lair

This week I finished reading Devil’s Lair by David Wisehart, a historical fantasy novel that’s part grail quest, and part return to Dante’s Inferno. It’s an engaging read, and my full review follows this image of the book’s cover.

Part Grail Quest, Part Return to Dante's Inferno.

The premise of Devil’s Lair is that Dante’s account of his travels through Hell in Inferno was basically a true story. Now, the devil has seized the holy grail, and its absence on earth is bringing about the End of Days as the Black Death spreads across Europe in 1349 A.D. A quartet of pilgrims lead by William of Ockham, the famous (and historical) friar and philosopher, undertakes a quest to find the gateway to Hell and retrieve the grail. With him are Nadja, a young German woman accused of witchcraft because she was born with the power to see the future, and Giovanni Boccaccio, the famous (and historical) Italian poet who is an expert on Dante and is expected to guide them through the underworld. The fourth member of their party is Marco da Roma, a former Knight Templar who they find left for dead on a battlefield, suffering from a serious bout of amnesia.

William of Ockham helped inspire William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose.*

The first part of the story, and frankly my favorite part of the novel, takes place in Italy, where the pilgrims are trying to get to Avenrus, a gateway to the underworld according to Virgil in the Aeneid. The problem is that Marco has no intention of joining them, and this provides the conflict for the first half of the story. The pilgrims’ travels through Italy take them to Rome and Padua, the home of Petrarch, the most famous poet of the time, who possesses an artifact the pilgrims will need if they’re to survive a journey through Hell. I found the scenes set in medieval Italy to be well-crafted, and they anchored what otherwise could have been a purely fantasy tale to a real and important period of history.

The second half of the story takes place in the nine circles of Hell, a setting based literally on Dante’s Inferno, complete with all of its monstrous denizens. There are a number of exciting scenes in the underworld, but in between these, the story slows down for scenes where each of the main characters learns something about themselves and their past. At times, this felt like reading a condensed version of Dante’s epic poem, but the author pulls it off and the ending contains enough of a twist to make the whole journey worthwhile.

In addition to being a Dante expert, Boccaccio was quite the ladies' man!**

One minor point: Similar to Loki, which I reviewed earlier this month, it was difficult in Devil’s Lair to identify the story’s protagonist. One of the reasons is that the author gives each of the four characters relatively equal time as a viewpoint character (using a third-person limited point-of-view). I’ve always felt that the protagonist should have the majority of scenes from his or her viewpoint. That way, the reader will always know whose story it’s supposed to be. In the case of Devil’s Lair, I think the protagonist is Giovanni Boccaccio, but it very well could be Marco da Roma. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interest in your opinion – who is the protagonist in Devil’s Lair?

* Photo credit Moscarlop.

** Photo credit JoJan.

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