Publication year: 2013
Format: Paperback, 319 pages
In present day London, 13-year-old Pen Tudor, an aspiring lawyer, has inherited a job as caretaker for 7 Temporal Crescent, a mysterious house with no doors, which can only be accessed from the lodge next door. The house’s previous caretaker, Mr Pyewackett, passed away seven years earlier… But that hasn’t stopped him from hanging around to make sure the house has a guardian until the house’s true owner, Bartlemy Goodman, can be found. Pyewackett’s lawyers have been unable to track him down in all this time, so it’s up to Pen to continue the search once Mr Pyewackett properly carks it.
Pen is told from the outset that entering the house next door would be extremely dangerous and that she must never do so… So naturally she does as soon as she gets half a chance. Upon entering Number 7, she discovers that the house is full of doors leading to various places and times throughout history and myth, but she has to be careful, as if anyone strays too far into one of these portals, they forget who they really are and become absorbed into that place and time. During the course of the story, two other teenagers show up, also looking for Bartlemy Goodman: Gavin Lester, a young chef who believes Goodman can help him become a master at his craft, and Jinx, a witch who views Goodman as a sort of mentor.
Meanwhile, Azmordis, also known as Satan, has come to realise that his immortality is fading and that soon his time will run out. But before he sleeps forever, another must be found to take over as the Lord of Hell. Scattered throughout the times and places in the house with no doors are various young people being honed by frightening trials to shape them into potential successors for the devil.
After reading Siegel’s Fern Capel trilogy, I had high hopes for this book. In fact, there are a few references to characters from those books that indicate The Devil’s Apprentice is set in the same universe. I liked the three main characters from the present day, as well as Ghost, a young boy struggling to survive and keep his gang alive in Victorian London at the height of the plague. I normally find stories that keep switching between different times to be a little tedious (it’s not that I get confused, just annoyed that I’ll be getting invested in one lot of characters only to suddenly be dragged away to another), but I felt that the mechanic worked well in this book. I also thought it was well-written, with a good balance between witty humour and darker, more serious sections.
Though I liked this book for the most part, I did still have a few issues with it. For one, I felt at times as though the story didn’t know whether it wanted to be aimed at children or young adults. In later sections of the book, some pretty nasty things happen and the characters involved are traumatised by it, as one would expect. Yet in the early chapters, Pen is introduced to Mr Pyewackett, who by this point is little more than a talking corpse with bits falling off him, but aside from being disgusted by the thought of biscuits making their way through his digestive system (or lack thereof), she doesn’t seem overly phased (whereas most people, whether children or adults, would be decidedly Not Okay with the prospect of encountering a living corpse, much less having a conversation with one). If it were in a world where bizarre things were established as being ‘normal’ it might have made sense, but up until this point, Pen has prided herself in not believe in fantasy or magic or having any interest in the paranormal. For children’s books, anything goes, but for YA I felt that some of the characters’ reactions to things were a bit… unrealistic.
On that note, Pen’s grandmother doesn’t seem to care or do much about the kids being in danger. In spite of being Pen’s sole guardian (aside from a butler who lives in the lodge they’ve inherited), she seems to be largely absent for much of the story, often being out doing shopping or running other mundane errands and leaving 13-year-old Pen and her friends to their own devices. At one point, a character is killed in front of Pen, Gavin and Jinx, and instead of becoming overly protective and wanting to stick around to make sure the teenagers are okay (as one would imagine most grandparents would), Grandma is content enough to just go off to work afterwards.
I also felt in general that it took a long time for the story to get going, and when it finally did, it just sort of fizzled off. The blurb makes a big deal of the Devil looking for a successor to take over, but it doesn’t really become a big thing in the story until the last third or quarter of the book. Much of the story just focuses on the three main characters exploring the various doors in the house, with occasional side-trips to Ghost in the 17th century and Satan in Infernale, musing about his impending retirement. I did love these other settings, and the richness of their descriptions. But to me it seemed that a lot of the time spent in these settings was more for ‘decoration’ and didn’t really move the story forward. I was also pretty disappointed in the ending.
<The next paragraph contains spoilers.>
Late in the story, the main characters realise they need to try to save the other young people trapped in the different realms and try to prevent them from turning into the next ruler of darkness. Though they come across a few of these potential candidates, the only one they manage to bring out into the present day is Ghost, but of course the Devil doesn’t want to let a possible successor get away. However, instead of an exciting face-off between the protagonists and the Devil, all we get is one of his ‘henchmen’, who shows up and demands the three main characters hand Ghost over to him. After a tense stand-off, the wizard Bartlemy Goodman – whom Pen had managed to find in one of the doorway realms not long before – shows up and tells this henchman to sod off, and then the story ends with Satan contemplating the future and the main characters sitting in the house eating biscuits. It just felt like the ‘climactic’ moment of the story essentially boiled down to, “Give me the boy.” “No.” “Okay.”
While not every book needs to have an explosive, action-packed showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, I felt like the final confrontation didn’t really live up to the potential of the story that had been building – albeit slowly – until that point.
Though there could feasibly be a sequel (based on a few things that were left open in the story), the ending seemed to indicate that that was it. I did a brief search to try to see if there was another book in the series to come, but at the time of writing this review, I was unable to find anything about it on the author’s or the publisher’s site (the author’s site didn’t even mention this book, and the links to her blog are broken). Given this was published in 2013, I would have imagined there’d be some mention online somewhere of a sequel, if it existed or was planned.
While I enjoyed most aspects of The Devil’s Apprentice, the slow pace and lackluster ending were disappointing; it was an intriguing concept, but could have been executed better. I’d probably be interested in reading the next book in the series – if indeed one ever comes out – but I would hope it picked up speed substantially from the first book.