Justin Gustainis: Sympathy For The Devil

The race is on for the United States Presidency. With a pack of Republican candidates all jockeying to be The One that makes the big push towards the White House, it’s shaping up to be one Hell of a race. Literally, because Senator Howard Stark is secretly hosting a demon. With infernal powers at his fingertips, and ruthless ambition coupled to an utter lack of morality, he won’t let anything get in his way. Soon, his opponents are dropping out of the race … or just plain dropping dead.

However, several people stand ready to thwart his plans. One is a former government hitman, returned from the dead for one last, very special job. The others are Libby Chastain and Quincy Morris, reunited after a lengthy break. Morris and Chastain may be a little rusty around the edges, especially since Morris is just getting over a crisis of faith, but they can’t refuse the call from an old friend. Hugh “Bat” Masterson, head of Senator Stark’s Secret Service detail, has a really bad feeling about the guy he’s protecting, and wants an expert opinion.

Now it’s Chastain and Morris and their erstwhile allies against the United States government. Can their ragtag conspiracy somehow get past security, expose Stark for the demon he really is, and save the day before they’re “vanished” into a prison for their treasonous acts? Or will the agents of Hell end up with their finger on the Big Red Nuclear Button?

As always, Gustainis packs his story full of dark situations and exciting sequences. This installment in the series is very much the political thriller (right down to the subtle callback to All The King’s Men in Stark’s name) and we get plenty of looks behind the scenes while on the campaign trail. Some bits aren’t for the squeamish; Gustainis has never been afraid to push the boundaries a little past the general comfort zone. Bad people do bad things, and good people are pushed to their limits in the process.

One of the things that’s always amused me with this series is how Gustainis plays with cameos and Easter eggs. He’s adept at namedropping and hiding clues for the perceptive reader in the narrative. Look hard enough, and you’ll see that his world has room for a great many protagonists from other series, some borrowed with permission, others thinly veiled. It doesn’t matter to him if the timesharing of characters is reciprocated; his characters coexist as far as he’s concerned, and no further. It’s fun to think that Morris and Chastain are just a phone call away from a wizard in Chicago, a Hunter in New Mexico, or even an animator in St. Louis.

When you get right down to it, Sympathy for the Devil is a tremendously enjoyable mash-up of political thriller and urban fantasy, intelligently written and full of tension. The pacing may seem a little off — we know from the start that Stark’s possessed by a demon, while it takes a considerable amount of time for our heroes to clean up personal messes and get on the same page — but it all dovetails together quite nicely after a while. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Quincy Morris and Libby Chastain, and it’s nice to see that they’re in fine form. This makes a worthy installment to the series (following 2009’s Evil Ways), sure to please existing fans. It’s also a great jumping on point for newcomers. Definitely worth a look.

(Solaris, 2011)

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