Four hundred years have passed since the fall of civilization As We Know It, society has reverted to a series of medieval monarchies, where technology has become magic and the genetic mutant experiments who now roam the Earth are the eponymous "demons of the past." Our protagonists are on a quest for a magical ocarina needed to refresh the magical barrier keeping more demons from escaping their four-hundred-year-old prison. Of course, soon we learn that things are not as simple as they seem....
The Days of Future Past setting of the book worked well. Erin Durante's talent lies in description, and whether it's geography or gore, she puts the right words in the right places (I loved Nadia's reactions to what we would consider ordinary technology, such as video cameras, and her descriptions of them in terms she understood). And to her credit, we learn about how the world got this way in an infodump, but only toward the end of the book. I only wish we had seen more of the setting—we get a good sense of the scenery as the protagonists take their cross-country trip to save the world, but aside from a couple of interactions with guests at a ball and innkeepers, we don't get a good sense of what society is like in this neo-medieval world. Women are evidently the fairer sex again, if Nadia's complex is any indication. What about religion? Those cross-species diseases that are mentioned near the climax of the book? Sports? The weather? In essence, The Demons of the Past has a lack of the mundane—which is always better than a lack of sensation.
Action and sensation pervade this book. Amidst steamy dialogue, Nadia is always fighting, kicking, arguing, etc. This helps keep the story—which is quite plot-driven—interesting and moving forward; there's always another conflict around the corner. In addition to classic hand-to-hand sword fighting and slightly-less classic hand-to-claw demon slaying, our protagonists battle against the elements and manipulative wizards/scientists. I truly enjoyed most of these scenes. There's almost never a dull moment—except where Nadia's concerned.
Demons of the Past really only has three characters worth discussing: Nadia, Vestro, and Andrew. I'll talk about the last two first and save my evaluation of the narrator last. Vestro and Andrew are also the competing love interests, but by the end of the book I wasn't too excited about either of them winning Nadia's heart.
Vestro is a 400-year-old kelpie (a mutant who can change into a horse). He befriends Nadia when she's a child and serves as her loyal steed in her clandestine demon-slaying adventures; in return, she doesn't tell anyone he's a "demon." He knows more than he tells Nadia, up until the end of the book, and although at first it seems like he might have betrayed her, he remains ever the loyal friend. In a way, Vestro is one of the more fleshed-out characters; he's suffered for hundreds of years and has real motives for his actions. I didn't enjoy the moodiness he exhibited for the last half of the book, however; after Nadia's petulance, it just seemed redundant.
Andrew, in many ways Vestro's opposite, is the prince and new king of the Pearl Isles. A childhood playmate of Nadia's, he spends most of the book asking Nadia to marry him in alternatively romantic and boorish ways. Whereas Vestro's is experienced and deft, Andrew is immature and heavy-handed, but we get the sense that he means well. Unfortunately, I liked Andrew much less than Vestro. He has a lot less of an excuse for being a jerk—yes, his father just died, but he's enough of a king to saddle up, lock and load, and go off on a quest for a mystical ocarina, but he can't handle being snubbed by a girl?
When it comes to the girl, I think I'd want to be snubbed by her. Try as I might, I could not get past Nadia's self-centred, childish nature. She's supposedly twenty-three, but she acts like she's twelve. I get that she's a gung ho gal who just wants to fight demons instead of playing princess—what girl wouldn't? Durante lays on the Rebellious Princess trope a little thick. Nadia's constant complaints about how the men perceive her and her ambivalence regarding Andrew and Vestro are probably my least favourite parts of this book. She has a heart of gold and tries to do the right thing (often screwing up in the process, although sometimes saving Andrew's life), which are redeeming characteristics, but her persistent whining undermines our vision of a badass Lady of War. My one caveat is that Nadia's tribulation at the very end of Demons of the Past foreshadows a possible maturation of her character in a very realistic, dramatic way; if that's the case, then I'll be mollified—but only then.
Demons of the Past is like a meal too rich in dessert; it has plenty of action sequences and tasty descriptions, but it lacks the meat of three-dimensional characters. While I enjoyed the secret society/conspiracy theory component of the plot, the machinations and divisions of loyalty could stand to be more complex and morally ambiguous than they were depicted. This is a good book in that it serves its purpose to lay the ground for the rest of the Damewood trilogy, but the next two books will need to improve if Durante hopes to elevate Damewood beyond average adventure fantasy.