In Andersen’s YA fantasy series opener, translated from the Danish by Semmel, a teenager enters hell and unwillingly trains to become its ruler.
As the story opens, 13-year-old Philip Engel is hiding in his school’s basement because Sam, an older, inventively cruel bully, has dubbed him his “Condemned of the Week.” Thankfully, the school’s janitor intervenes before Sam can harm him. Later, on his way home, Philip rescues a black cat stuck in a tree: “Thanks for helping me out,” the cat says, to Philip’s amazement. Then Sam catches up with his victim and pushes him into a crosswalk—and in front of a car. Soon, Philip wakes up in hell, where he reunites with the talking cat, whose name is Lucifax, and heads for a castle made of bones—the lair of the devil himself. The teen learns that the devil is dying and needs to train a replacement; however, it turns out that Lucifer intended to summon Sam, not Philip. A one-time deal with Death allowed the devil to take just one boy before his time, so he must make do with Philip, who’s literally a Boy Scout. How will Philip fare when his villainy is tested? And is a young “she-devil” named Satina offering him true friendship? Philip only knows one thing for sure: that he wants to escape his apprenticeship before the devil expires. Andersen’s morally gray series opener rests on the argument that evil is, in fact, necessary. As the devil says, “We can’t see without light, but we can’t see without darkness, either. We need both to be able to navigate.” Hell is populated with colorful demons, such as Flux and Aziel, who live in hell’s grisly suburbs; on Maim Street, Philip hears “muffled screams...from the buried mouths when he trudged upon their bleeding skulls.” It’s graphic imagery, indeed, but the author manages to inject occasional silliness, such as Lucifax’s wry commentary: “Down here, humor is always dark.” Eventually, the young man must deal with teenage jealousy, along with other, more devilish traits. Andersen’s exceptional plotting ensures that its sequel will be irresistible.
An enjoyably disturbing supernatural tale.