The Lesser Devil is a standalone novel set in the same universe as the Sun Eater series, whose complex world-building and strong characterisation I’ve spoken about here before, at length. It has occasional appearances by familiar characters, but stands very well on its own.
This tale focuses on Crispin Marlowe. Crispin was, quite literally, born to rule. He’s genetically enhanced to live for centuries. He has super-human reflexes. He’s the son of a man who rules over an entire planet, with all the privilege which that accrues. So Crispin has a lot going for him. But he’s also someone living under a shadow. His father has the iron will and ruthlessness you’d expect from someone with absolute power over the population of a planet, and his older brother left under a cloud decades ago, having fought his way past Crispin to do it. Those things put a pall over the man, as he tries to find his own shape, his own purpose which isn’t defined in the poles of what his father demands that he be, or what his absent brother decided to be instead. Crispin isn’t a small man, but struggles to break free of the constraint nd expectations into which he is bound - or, perhaps, to refine them so that they fit his form rather than the needs of others.
I especially enjoy the relationship Crispin has with his sister, Selene. Crispin is impulsive, maybe a little too quick to anger, striving to surpass the expectations and reputation of his house. A man who can lead from the front, and begins the story with a sense of his own nobility, and an embedded entitlement. Still, the fire in his nature keeps him liable, as does the streak of gentle introspection which you might not expect. Selene, by contrast, is calm, cool, collected, and ruthless. She complements Crispin nicely, and adds a little more calculation as he bulls ahead. They do make an excellent duo, and their cross-talk and dialogue is always both intelligent and entertaining. While the focus is, understandably, on Crispin, I’d be delighted if Selene got stories of her own as well.
Anyway. The Marlowe’s find themselves in something of a scrape, and this gives us an opportunity to explore a slightly smaller scale setting than the sprawling wider universe of the larger series. Much of the story occurs in a wonderfully bucolic village of low-tech individuals, consigned to the back of beyond for their rather outre religious beliefs. The village is charming, and its inhabitants, while part of the plebeian caste of this society, showcase the best of humanity. They have courage, integrity and honour, and are wonderfully forward with the slightly baffled Crispin.The honesty and humanity of the supporting cast of villagers really helps the story shine - we care about them, and their struggles, as they work with the aristocratic Marlow siblings to resolve the hole that they’ve fallen into.
And what a hole it is. I won’t get into it in detail, but there’s a lot going on here. Some fantastically drawn, furiously kinetic fight scenes. Some appalling tragedies and reversals to take the breath away. Technology that makes you feel wonder as much as terror, and draw breath at the grandeur of human ambition. Human courage and sacrifice at its finest.It’s a ot of fun, and Crispin manages to realise something about himself as well, fighting alongside these people he might only have thought of as mayflies, and perhaps has insight into a larger epiphany of the soul. But, also, and I can’t stress this enough, he kicks arse, and makes it look cool.
This is a great story, off the main path of this series. It adds some nice context for the other books, and they in turn feed into the flavour for this one. As a standalone, it’s a fast-paced, fun, thoughtful and above all entertaining read. Give it a go.