Wayne Barlowe’s God’s Demon is a lengthy response to a short, though complicated, question: is redemption possible for even those who have committed the worst sin imaginable? In order to answer this question he presents a sort of case study of a being whose sin goes far beyond any action of which a mere human is capable. God’s Demon is the story of Sargatanas, a seraph who joined Lucifer’s rebellion against God and was cast down into Hell alongside him when the rebellion failed.
Following his Fall from grace Sargatanas’s former status as a seraph granted him the station of Demon Major in Hell, a sort of feudal lord of the damned. He spent millenia carrying out the divine instructions that demons, sent to Hell as punishment, were to in turn punish the lesser human souls who followed. But Sargatanas never had the enthusiasm that many of his kind showed for torture. Rather than embrace his new position, he recognized how wrong he was in rebelling against God and sought to return to Heaven.
This desire was far from unique, but instead of allowing his loss and frustration to become bitterness and hatred Sargatanas tried to create as much Heaven as is possible while living in Hell. His city, Adamantinarx-Upon-the-Acheron, is modeled after the cities of Heaven. Over time, he even begins to feel sympathy for some of the souls under his command–though it doesn’t keep him from treating them as literal resources to be consumed in the construction of his city, which is built of human souls compressed into infernal bricks. When he meets a soul who asks why she was condemned to Hell because she killed in a just war “against a ruler who neither understood nor cared for me” these feelings come to a head and Sargatanas decides he will either return to Heaven or be destroyed in the attempt.
So begins Sargatanas’s war of rebellion against Beelzebub, regent prince of Hell, and the all the demonic legions, dead demi-gods, and soul-constructed war machines he commands.
Remember Dante’s Inferno? Wayne Barlowe clearly does. Though the view of Hell that he puts forth in God’s Demon is very different from Dante Alighieri’s, Barlowe’s scope and detail of description certainly bring to mind the seven hundred year old poem. Hell is not a setting in this book; it is an environment, and it just happens to have a story taking place in which the reader might be interested if they have a moment to spare. Peter Jackson’s fascination with New Zealand has nothing on Barlowe’s fixation on Hell. Appropriately for Barlowe, who is mostly known as an artist, this book is like reading a painting…certainly not a pleasant painting, but one that is incredibly vivid and detailed. Some of the very lengthy descriptions would make anyone from Hieronymus Bosch to Dave McKean squirm in their chair.
But while the environment of Hell shows a great deal of thought and planning, the actual story being told leaves something to be desired. And that is an intentional phrasing; the book is not bad or poorly written, but a background and plot of this scale demand more depth than Barlowe has created. Former angels, condemned to an eternity in Hell for taking part in Lucifer’s rebellion but now focused on returning to Heaven should have a myriad of internal conflicts. A feudal political structure thousands of years old give birth to shifting alliances, loyalties, and betrayals. Even the demons themselves are disappointing as their power plays are almost entirely based on straight-forward physical or magical power, only rarely displaying the cunning or deception one would expect from, well, a demon.
The overall plot and construction of the story shows a similar lack of depth.Sargatanas starts his war because he wants to return to Heaven, but he never really gives an explanation for how he expects the war to accomplish this goal. A key subplot, Hannibal Barca’s attempt to lead the human souls as warriors in Sargatanas‘s army (think Lincoln allowing ex-slaves into the North’s army during the civil war) never really comes together despite a promising start. Even the main plot is extremely linear, without the sort of diversions that appear when characters are trying to find their way through a difficult situation; the characters all know exactly what they want, can think of one way to get it, and will try as hard as they can to make it happen. Luckily, the plot is only about 40% of the book, and the 60% that is lush description distracts you in the same way that outstanding CGI can prop up a summer blockbuster. You won’t realize how little actual story there is until you’ve finished the book, and that makes God’s Demon a good read despite a lingering feeling of missed potential.