Book Review: The Devil Pulls the Strings
Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
A dark magical quest steeped in musical folklore
The Devil Pulls the Strings is a twisted, joyous, and bloody shifting kaleidoscope of a fantasy adventure. It is a story so arresting, so action-packed and personality-filled, that even readers unfamiliar with or not usually interested in the historical setting will be enthralled by it.
Author J.W. Zarek’s writing is immediate, vivid, and easy to sink into. When a cold blade hits a character’s throat, I can feel it against my skin. The first few chapters casually slip and slide between realities—it’s disorienting but never unpleasant or overwhelming. In fact, these efficient, absurd twists of reality make us sit up and take notice.
With each disturbing jump between worlds, Zarek’s accessible writing style evokes the mesmerizing sensation of looking through a kaleidoscope as it shifts in color. Readers are unsure what’s really happening, but they’re held firm in the surroundings and the characters they’re with, absolutely loving the ride. That clarity and undeniable realism written into fantasy is rare, and—in a novel this ambitious with its magic systems— is frankly magnificent to behold.
The story follows Boone, a seemingly ordinary boy with a tragic past and fierce friendships. He’s sent on a mission which turns darker and more perplexing with each reveal. Boone innocently travels to an address where he’s supposed to take his friend’s place performing in a musical concert. But when he gets there, it’s a murder scene—happening live—a body and piano falling from the sky, crashing down in front of him.
“It’s spellbinding. It’s supernatural,” Boone says as he finds himself suddenly entranced and obeying the orders of a stranger to escape the crime scene. At the same time, he’s accurately describing the experience of reading this book. We don’t know what’s happening, but we must keep learning—it’s too dazzling, too mystifying to look away. And that is how I stayed up all night reading The Devil Pulls the Strings. I bet you’ll want to do the same.
Whether the characters are running from terrifying monsters, sword-fighting sinister attackers, or fleeing from the scene of bloody murders, there’s always more going on. We wonder along with them: Is this time travel? An accidental trip through a magic portal? A mental break? The beast with red eyes that’s been haunting Boone since his parents disappeared years ago? A side-effect of the pills he’s taking? Who can he trust? Equally reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the surreal conversations with classical prodigies in Mozart in the Jungle, and particularly trippy episodes of The Magicians, this novel never stops surprising Boone or its readers.
The murder at the heart of this story is of Professor Stone, the last person in possession of a precious piece of music meant to be played at a charity event in New York. We learn that this music—by the legendary, often mythologized Italian violinist Paganini—is so rare, last heard over one hundred years ago, that people are willing to kill for it.
Boone is told that when the three special pieces of music are brought together in the moonlight—along with a few extraordinary magical items—an ancient, prophesied spellwork takes place. But what is this spellwork? “It could be the Devil granting a wish. It could be a doorway to Hell opening to suck the performer’s soul in for all eternity. Or it’s just Paganini’s greatest composition we get to experience once every one hundred years.” Unfortunately, it seems most likely that Boone should fear the worst.
When Boone arrives at the Professor’s house and finds him dead, there is someone else there: Sapphire, the Professor’s assistant and a French Diplomat’s daughter. She becomes Boone’s companion and partner in what-the-heck-is-going-on-and-how-do-we-fix-it.
Sapphire and Boone are introduced to a secret society (which the Professor belonged to) trusted by generations to protect mystical relics from falling into the wrong hands. “Be those the hands of misguided mortals, otherworldly beings, or hordes of demons.” This is a major plot twist for Boone, who spends most of the year fixing roofs and jousting with his friends at the Renaissance Faire in Missouri. He has never left the state until now and only came to New York City because he’d promised his best friend (who is hospitalized due to a jousting accident) that he’d take his place playing in his band “The Village Idiots.”
Boone has visions of the future that terrify and nauseate him; some are events which he can prevent, others depict things he isn’t even sure are possible. He travels through time and across the world. He meets strangers who feel familiar (sometimes because he’s traveled to the past and met the ancestors of his friends) and others who give him peculiar magical devices that might save his life.
To achieve the Professor’s goal, Boone must confront his greatest terrors. Then, after facing the horrifying creatures, he learns that he must still confront a powerful blood-drinking cult. With sharp twists of heartache, betrayal, and devastation, The Devil Pulls the Strings is a story well-suited to anyone who loves compelling, ever-changing journeys filled with intrigue.
The Devil Pulls the Strings is a charming novel filled with curious characters. There is violence, death, terror, and suspense, but as Boone and Sapphire work together to avoid summoning the Devil, the overall mood of the book is upbeat. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, wholly unique, and brilliant read.
Genre: Fantasy / Action & Adventure
Print Length: 252 pages
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