'Cake had become his new favourite treat, well almost favourite. When someone brought in ice cream cake, his very foundation was shaken. Who was the freakin' genius that first put these two things together?'
[this reviewer respectively agrees]
'The Devil and the Wolf', p.68.
By Richard L. Pastore, 2016.
When I first opened this book, I was a little worried. Pastore’s pitch was intriguing but ambitious. The story appeared to focus on heavy questions regarding the human condition, as well as an elaborate setting between our reality and that of Heaven and Hell. Now when I hear that kind of ambition, I know only one thing: that it will be amazing or fall flat on its metaphorical paperback face. The Goodreads profile only makes side-hints to the fact the story is in fact very humorous and fairly light-hearted, which I didn’t discover until later. I read the first few pages and felt my heart sinking: there were already several grammatical errors. Pastore was a charming and supportive chap who was supporting us constantly on social media, so as I began the book I felt that I was heading for a difficult situation: having to give a bad review to someone I really liked.
However, this book has undoubtedly made it into my Top 10 favourite books of all time. Now I don’t say that lightly, if anyone asks me what my favourite book is I will give you three titles and ‘um’ for ten minutes straight about others. Despite the rocky start, Pastore’s characters completely won me over and I found myself wishing I could sit in Mephistopheles’ lounge and watch JR Wolfe wreak adorable, charmed havoc.
Let me take a step back here and briefly tell you what the story is about. Mephistopheles Karas, one of the Nine Princes of Hell, is a charming and extremely clever demon who wants to see The Humanity Test end. The test means he routinely selects a human – ‘The Candidate’ - and grants their desires. They are then judged by a committee of angels and demons, who will determine whether humanity is inherently good or evil. As you would expect, the angels and demons never agree and therefore the Humanity Test never ends, with Mephistopheles continually finding new candidates for them to judge in the hope that one day they will agree. The Humanity Test is the only thing keeping the two sides from another war.
Mephistopheles is fed up with the Humanity Test, as he knows it will never resolve anything and he is quite frankly bored of his part in it. So he hatches a plan to put a stopper in the test once and for all: change a wild wolf into a human. Here enters J.R. Wolfe, a former-wolf who loves to eat, play, cause havoc and wind Mephistopheles up. The story begins with his transformation and so begins their journey into stopping the Humanity Test. Along their way the pair will encounter teenage film crews, roast turkeys, employers hell-bent on assassination and three Cherubim who love mini juice boxes.
Pastore’s use of dialogue is undoubtedly one of the best features of the book, aside from the well-written cast of characters. It is diverse, funny and extremely believable. I enjoy dialogue that sounds real and that carries the personalities of its characters. Pastore used some internal thoughts but thankfully didn’t overuse it, as I tend to find italicized internal thoughts frustrating if used too much as it seems to say: the writer can’t fit this information in any other way.
The characters themselves were fantastic, they were fun, well-rounded and while I didn’t find them too ‘complex’, they were intriguing and real. Mephistopheles was a take on the classic demon-as-human physique: black suit, black shoes, devilish goatee and thin frame. However he was not your typical demon. Mephistopheles cared for humans, he tricked and teased both angels and demons, and he owned companies all of over the world and rewarded his employees. He was fiercely protective and as any demon should, he had a wicked sense of humour. When he created J.R. Wolfe, the ancient devil already had a well-constructed plan for all that would happen and who would be involved in the lead up to the judgement of Wolfe’s soul. However, Wolfe surprised to him. Wolfe had a wonderful way of getting into trouble and disturbing the peace of Mephistopheles’ life, from wrecking his cars to using his favourite guest bedroom as an art studio. Yet for a demon who was known for his good manners and his lack of tolerance for the rude, Mephistopheles let Wolfe get away with nearly everything.
Wolfe was similar in his traits though tended to be more extreme. Wolfe was curious, fun-loving, playful, a glutton and despite the appearance of innocence, extremely clever and good-naturedly devious. Wolfe was like a teenager too clever for his own good but maintained a keen survival instinct, pushing things only as far as he knew was safe. He is more bulky and Hollywood in appearance than Mephistopheles, ready to laugh and throw himself into things while his demon creator observed from the side lines. While none of the characters appear to change over the course of the book, Wolfe ‘deepens’ into a human, moving from using his wolfish habits at the dinner table to a better awareness of the rules of society.
The plot itself, which I had initially feared to be too grandiose, is well structured and Pastore expertly crafts his story so that it maintains interest. There is a fair mix of action and talking scenes, scenes of quiet and scenes of excitement, a mix that is often hard to accomplish while exploring heavy questions. There weren’t too many information dumps, even the biggest one in chapter five which explored the history of the war between Heaven and Hell was fairly short. The conversations on the topic were kept simple and the information was drip-fed throughout the early chapters. The chapter-lengths are all fairly short and sweet, so the reader keeps up a healthy level of gratification when reading.
All questions and issues are resolved by the end of the book with a few little surprises thrown in. The only criticism I would have was how smoothly Mephistopheles’ plan went. Consistently throughout the book he predicts the outcome and that is the outcome we are granted. I never felt the characters were in any real danger or that the ending would be any different from what Mephistopheles predicted, so while I enjoyed the ending it was an ending I expected. Even the villains in the book are made to look ridiculous and stupid when faced with Mephistopheles’ cunning and wit, so they were never a true threat. Part of the investment of a reader is fearing for the characters and yearning for the ending that just might not happen, so I didn’t find myself as invested as I could have been in the ending.
Overall however this was an extremely enjoyable book with amazing characters and it is a wonderfully fun read for anyone looking for something to pick them up out of the damp spring blues. I will definitely be reading it again and I love it for its faults as well as its fine qualities.