Poor Hannah Green, the protagonist of Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, by Michael Marshall Smith. At the outset of the book, she’s an 11 year old girl living in Santa Cruz, California, going to school, doing all the usual boring things kids have to do. Her parents are separating, her mother going to London for a “business trip”, her father sinking into depression as he tries to take care of her and himself. Her life seems utterly mundane and she can’t see any possibility that it’s ever going to be different. Things pick up a little when her father sends her to stay with her Granddad, a somewhat eccentric itinerant free spirit, living to the north. At least she gets out of school for a while, and she gets to spend time with an interesting person whose behavior is never quite predictable.
Then things start getting a little odd. It turns out that her grandfather is somewhat older than she’d thought. In fact, he’s a couple of hundred years older. And those bizarre little sculptures he gave her and her parents might not just be attempts at art, but protections against dangerous forces. Her grandfather, Hannah slowly comes to discover, knows quite a lot about those dangerous forces, because two hundred years ago, he built a device for the devil which converts human evil into energy the devil can use. Her grandfather has been taking care of this device ever since, but now, for reasons unknown, something has gone wrong with it, and the devil himself is coming to ask for her grandfather’s help, and of course her grandfather isn’t going to leave her alone while he gallivants around creation with the devil. Mundane is now a thing of the past.
This is a great fun book, one you’ll keep reading just because you have no idea what’s going to happen next: at one point the devil, Hannah, her grandfather and an accident imp named Vaneclaw find themselves in a spot in Siberia which is the exact middle of nowhere; at another point, Hannah finds herself in hell, though it’s called the Behind here and isn’t at all the sort of hell you’d picture from Dante and other medieval sources. They run into all sorts of other characters, both demonic and human (and non human and non demonic, but I’m not going to spoil the fun on that). One of the critical mechanisms in the plot involves an antique roller coaster (and believe me, you will never ride an old roller coaster with quite the same mentality again after reading this). All the while, the author has such a sure sense of character and plot that you’re confident this will all come together somehow, but you have no idea how, and that’s what keeps you reading.
Well, that’s part of what keeps you reading. The other part is the characters, all of whom are vivid and fully developed, from Hannah (who is not, fortunately, one of those utterly precocious and unbelievable children you see too often in fiction, especially fantasy), to her grandfather (whose hidden depths never quite obliterate our sense of who he has been throughout the book), to Hannah’s parents (both clearly drawn and neither a cliche of midlife crisis and working too hard to be a good spouse or a good parent), to the aforementioned Vaneclaw (whom most of the characters can’t see, but who is described as looking like a large mushroom with arms and legs), to Nash (a particularly nasty gang member who’s traveling across country to fulfill a destiny he can’t quite understand), to the devil himself.
I really want to give a shout out to the author for the character of the devil. It’s not easy to take a figure so infamous, so often portrayed in fiction and movies and the like, and make him fresh and interesting, but Smith manages that trick. The devil is not a nice guy; he doesn’t even have redeeming social value, and a couple of times in the course of the book I had to stop and wonder why I was rooting for him to succeed when he spends so much of his time and energy causing destruction and misery to others. But I do root for him, and Hannah’s grandfather and the rest of the characters on his side, to succeed, despite his horrible behavior in general.
The book is full of surprises, including the humor that pops up here and there, and the way the plot winds and unwinds itself, and the way the characters keep revealing different abilities and quirks. The ending is satisfying without being obvious, and from now on I, for one, will be looking around for other books by Michael Marshall Smith, if they’re as much fun as this one.