It's always a pleasure to sit down and begin a book you know you'll enjoy. It takes a lot of the pressure off, as a reader. You don't have to worry that if you take the book out with you somewhere you'll end up wanting to dump it after five pages and find yourself with nothing to read. Although I read The Trouble with Demons on my day off in a chair outside my house, the point stands: I've looked forward to this book for some time now.
My reviews of Magic Lost, Trouble Found and Armed and Magical are, upon a second reading, far too vague and cursory to do justice to Lisa Shearin's inventive fantasy series (and oddly incoherent at times, which rather disconcerts me—what was I on?). I will try to rectify this shortcoming with this review, so bear with me.
In The Trouble with Demons, we see the Raine Benares series reach maturity. Its first two books were good, but there's a certain confidence in The Trouble with Demons that sets it apart from its two predecessors. From the start, Shearin reminds us that it has only been two weeks since Raine Benares, an elven seeker (of lost things) from a disreputable family (pirates, no less), became psychically bonded to the Saghred, a semi-sentient stone of near-limitless power. At the rate of a week per book, this series is advancing time only slightly faster than 24—not that I'm complaining. The short time frame means that the label "action-packed thrill ride" works fine for The Trouble with Demons; other labels need not apply.
It's been more than a year since I read Armed & Magical (and as much as I would like to have re-read that first, I don't have the time right now). Shearin does a good job at recapping the events of past books without slowing down the actual adventure to a crawl. New readers can jump into the series with this book, but I would advise against it, because that would mean denying oneself the pleasure of the two books prior to this one! Also, this book has almost zero fat content. For a magically-dense world, it is remarkably terse on magical matters. There are a few exposition-heavy conversations, but for the most part The Trouble with Demons is a full of streamlined action with the occasional pause for breath and a paragraph of explanation. I get a sense of how the magic works, but Shearin spares us a three-page lecture on the need for balance and willpower; for that alone she deserves a medal. I especially enjoyed the opening, which reacquainted me with Raine and her cousin Phaelan as demons unleash havoc on the Isle of Mid. Good times.
Some of the best things about this book are also the things I disliked the most. Raine is, as usually, sassy and strong; she's a model kickass heroine and probably the best reason to read this series. Still, I could have done with her constant observations of how attractive Tam and Mychael are; certainly she could have refrained from describing the latter man as "yummy." I have nothing against sticking Raine in a love triangle though, and at this point, I'm kind of hoping she will get laid just so she stops mentioning her lack of a love life so frequently. In action if not in observation, however, Raine is second to none. She's capable, always ready to lead a charge and safeguard her friends, but she isn't the stoic sort of hero who rushes off on her own to do battle because she doesn't want to endanger anyone else. She does her best to ensure her friends' safety, but she can't help it if everyone she knows is eager for action and payback.
Speaking of which, did I mention this book has pirates? And past books have had something that approximates ninjas. Studies have shown that including pirates in a book automatically makes it awesome, and The Trouble with Demons is no exception to that rule, embodied by Raine's cousin Phaelan. He's sort of a less scrupulous male version of Raine, and it shows. Phaelan even gets his own crowning moment of awesome against an antagonist who needs to be conveniently disabled for a little while.
Some of the characters weren't as impressive. I didn't grow very fond of the new chair of demonology (the old chair got eaten, of course), Sora Niabi. I'm just starting to tire of the fact that all the protagonists are so darn awesome—and everyone on the side of good seems to think Raine is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I like Raine too, but that doesn't mean I believe all the protagonists should like her—rivalry can be fun! As much as I enjoyed the story, the characters in The Trouble with Demons are pretty shallow and tend toward those extremes: good, awesome, and friends of Raine; and evil, incompetent (or arrogant), and foes of Raine.
One of the challenges of writing a series is upping the ante with each book, of course. And Shearin set the bar high for herself when she bonded Raine to a soul-eating stone. . . . She manages to pull it off in this book, and from the hints left at the end, the fourth book will have even higher stakes. In this one it's demons and a Hellgate, and in the next book, Raine's world is moving closer toward an all-out goblin-elf war, with the Saghred (and thus her) in the middle of it. Only two weeks have passed, but Raine has attracted the attention of very powerful people, some of whom we've met in previous books and others whom we know only by name and reputation. Shearin's world-building is top-notch, and she's obviously laying the ground for the upcoming trials Raine will face as those who seek to acquire the Saghred become even more desperate.
Meanwhile, Raine herself wants to unload the Saghred as soon as possible. She can't, and even if she could, there still remains the question of what to do with it (assuming they don't find a way to just destroy it). Shearin, to her credit, provides no easy answers and places her protagonist in a truly dangerous predicament: now Raine's bonded not only to the Saghred but to her two potential lovers, Tam and Mychael, and if the Saghred consumes her, they'll be next. Raine's problems aren't just personal or political but a painful melange of both, and it shows. This, of course, just motivates her to go out and beat up as many bad guys as possible. . . .
That's really the strength of The Trouble with Demons: it's fun. There were a couple of moments where I laughed out loud (not all that common when I'm reading) and a few where I pumped my hand in the air as I cheered on the characters (I almost never do that). It's action-packed, yes, but it's also got charming characters, witty dialogue, and genuine high-stakes tension. This is a book a finely-tuned instrument of entertainment, and it doesn't miss the high note. I can't call it perfect, but it's a definite pleasure to read.