Death’s Apprentice is a book that really, really wants to be a movie. The story of three unlikely heroes who band together to defeat the Devil himself, it suffers from by-the-numbers plotting, on the nose writing, and paper-thin characters who go where the plot leads willy-nilly. It all ends in a messy small-scale Amageddon, complete with a deus ex machina that Tolkien fans might find familiar.
The premise, sadly, is a good one. The back cover text promises a city built on top of Hell and ruled by Satan, with a story woven together from the fullest extent of the Brothers Grimm’s notes and stories. But the story elements are so far removed from their original context that the Grimm connection seems lost, and the city is a jumbled collection of half-drawn cliches, barely existing in the background and deeply inconsistent where it does emerge. At one moment we hear of a character who’s spent years looking for the Devil but can’t find him, the next we’re treated to a look at the Devil’s office tower where hundreds of supplicants have apparently had no trouble locating the front door.
The characters suffer from the same inconsistency. Killer-for-hire Hank takes a job from the Devil’s right hand man and then blithely sets out to kill the creature who hired him while staying on the Devil’s payroll. This is, of course, because he’s suddenly fallen in love with one of the book’s two female characters, a lawyer-slash-badass martial artist who collapses into weepy heaps at regular intervals as she chases after her stolen baby. And the child, of course, is a stand-in for all of humanity, transparently named with blatant symbolism. Of course our three prophesied heroes – the prophesy itself seems largely incidental, other than sparking the Devil to hire Hank to kill all the other murderers in town – decide to rescue the kid independently and wind up working together, because that’s what heroes do in stories like this.
As for the other two heroes, they’re largely wasted potential.
Nathanael, the title character, has been working for Death for a decade but is suddenly unable to perform his soul-reaping duties for reasons of health. A teenager whose father sold him to Death in exchange for ten more years of life, Nathanael has the book’s one affecting moment, a reconciliation in Hell with his father that is largely carried out in ellipsis. This unfortunate choice may serve as an attempt at literal translation of an emotional conversation, but it robs the scene of much of its power.
Former soldier Blake, on the other hand, is the sort of character who flips between mortally wounded and unstoppable badass with no states in between. Tricked by the Devil into doing the unspeakable, he’s still in possession of half of his soul, as well as an evil coat that has bonded with his skin. But his motivations for joining the heroic quest are thin, and his character arc is a short one.
Ultimately, the book is as forgettable as any CGI-heavy off-season action movie, and for much the same reason. Predictable plot beats, hand waved world building and a villain who’d rather explain his plans to the heroes rather than act on them are all part of the cultural furniture at this point, and in Death’s Apprentice, K.W. Jeter and Gareth Jefferson Jones have chosen to decorate with them exclusively.
(Thomas Dunne Books, 2012)