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The Devil Inside by Jenna Black2 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWelcome back to the world of urban/paranormal/romantic/fantasy/noir. Yet another passenger to hitch a ride on Laurell Hamilton’s crowded bandwagon is paranormal romance writer Jenna Black. During the 2000s, I actually got quite a lot of paranormal romance from publishers, and most of it, I must admit, I rolled my eyes at and shifted it into the “don’t bother” pile. I know this stuff has a huge crossover audience to SFF. But it just wasn’t my thing.

Still, I thought I’d give The Devil Inside a try, as the urban fantasy aspects are more actively promoted here. Naturally, Black trades liberally in both urban fantasy’s and romance’s most common tropes. Her protagonist is Morgan Kingsley, a tough-as-coffin-nails freelance exorcist with the outfits, tattoos, attitude, and perfect boyfriend to Mary Sue her way into a million readers’ hearts. While the fantasy is at the forefront of the plot, Black keeps the romance content solid, which means plenty of porn. I know most men don’t read romance novels, so you guys’d probably be surprised to find out that they can easily be as hardcore as whatever you last checked out on PornHub, if not harder.

For fans of this kind of thing, there is ample entertainment value to be had in The Devil Inside. And Black’s premise is fresh enough to prove that in the hands of a decently skilled writer, there’s still some originality to be squeezed out of this cops-and-monsters scenario after all. One can contrast this book against something like, say, Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, which never managed to overcome its inherent Dresden Files Lite character. Unfortunately, Black makes a big, ill-conceived blunder in plot logic right in the first chapter. And the book as a whole eventually goes overboard on the smut, leading to scenes that seem like little more than kinky padding. I think gay readers might also take offense at the story’s two prominent gay characters, who are into the whole whips-and-chains BDSM thing. Every gay friend I’ve got bemoans stories, especially those written by and for straight women, that assume being gay automatically means you’re into fetishy, kinky sexplay. 

I enjoyed Black’s fantasy setup, which is rooted in the notion of consent. Demons interact with the human world by inhabiting human hosts. There are good demons, who have their hosts’ consent to possess them, and bad demons, who are basically invading squatters. Demon possession is subject to its own set of statutes, which are upheld by special law enforcement operatives, many of whom are good-demon-possessed themselves, and exorcists, who work freelance like private eyes and are brought into to drive out bad demons from their illegally possessed hosts once they’re caught. If you can’t get hold of an exorcist, the only alternative is to burn the host at the stake.

But Black’s story starts out sloppily. Morgan Kingsley is called in to exorcise an illegal demon from its host, a little girl. It’s an ugly, risky procedure, because often the host ends up irreparably brain damaged. When Morgan arrives at the police station where the possessed kid is being held in a special containment cell, she immediately gives the detective in charge a tongue-lashing for poor procedure, such as the fact none of his staff is wearing proper gloves. An illegal demon can jump hosts by the merest touch, we’re told. But hang on — where are Morgan’s gloves? Why, if this demon is so dangerous, does she blithely waltz into this containment cell wearing only — let me find it —  ah-ha —  “a pair of tight low-rise jeans with a clingy sweater and a pair of kick-ass pointy-toed boots’? You’d think she’d have the exorcist equivalent of a hazmat suit the way she dresses down the cops for their own lack of protective gear. And if this demon is so dangerous it requires a containment cell that Morgan has to pass two checkpoints to get into, why the hell do the cops let the little girl’s parents hang out in there? 

Oh dear. Bad bad bad opening, Jenna. And worse that the whole subsequent plot seems to require this glaring plot flaw. Yes, as you might have surmised, Morgan is unwittingly touched by the demon right before the girl is exorcised. But to Morgan’s surprise, she isn’t possessed. It isn’t until she returns home to Philly that she learns the true reason: there’s already a demon inside her of whose presence she’s heretofore been entirely unaware. I’ll leave it up to you to judge whether an exorcist unaware of her own possession is deliberate irony or just more dumb plot contrivance.

Morgan’s demon calls himself Lugh, is devastatingly studly, and informs Morgan (in her dreams, of course) that he’s a VIP in the demon world. Just how VI Morgan will soon learn. A nasty power play is underway that could see the bad demons, the ones who want simply to enslave humanity, gain the upper hand.

Just how high the stakes are comes home to Morgan when she suddenly finds her best friend turned her most vicious enemy, herself framed for murder, and various anonymous parties trying their best to kill her by unsubtle means. Black keeps all this on track by having Lugh help Morgan out of her worst scrapes. We aren’t treated to the inane, bad-action-movie spectacle of hopelessly incompetent villians who always let our heroine escape through convenient bungling. But it’s no less inane that Morgan herself is so rash and quick-tempered that, if left to her own devices, she likely wouldn’t survive a day. In the end, it’s only through the help of a good-demon-possessed cop, Adam, and his boyfriend Dominic that Morgan can find just what’s up with Lugh, and who is trying to kill them both, and why. The problem is, Adam hates her guts as much as anyone. Sometimes a girl can’t catch a break. 

Black doesn’t hesitate to put her heroine through the proverbial wringer over and over again, even when she’s already well-wrung. This gives the book suspense and keeps the pacing energized. But the latter half of the book feels less interested in its mysteries and positively obsessed with brutal scenes of bondage and railing, which read like nothing so much as Black’s attempt to out-Laurell Ms. Hamilton. If you’re the kind of reader already enamored of urban fantasy, and the synopsis of this one makes it sound like you’d go for it regardless, then you most certainly will. If you tend to be bugged by the storytelling gaffes I’ve listed, you’ll be less impressed. The Devil Inside hints that Jenna Black could have what it takes to tell some solid urban fantasy if she offers more demon-fighting and, maybe, eases up on the sodomy. Unless Morgan gets to play!

Followed by The Devil You Know.