Demon Drums by Carol Severance
**Mild Spoilers Ahead**
Demon Drums is the story of a woman reconciling her relationship with a god—her family god—that she killed. It’s a story about stopping a war that caused her to abandon too much of her humanity. It’s a story of her mentorship of a preternaturally gifted teenager, and undoing the accidental harm caused by that teenager. It’s a story about their righting the wrongs of a cult of magical drummers who use human-skinned drums to control people. It’s the story about their stopping of an evil witch who steals the life-force of living things to pad her own power.
If, as that list went on, it started to feel like ten pounds of plot in a five pound novel, I’d agree with you. If you also thought that each of those points sounded like an intriguing premise, then we're on the same page.
Demon Drums is my least favorite sort of reading experience because there’s so much I wanted to like, so much potential, but, with one exception, I don’t think it ever got there.
Early in the book, I kept double-checking that Demon Drums wasn’t the second book in a series. The amount of ground needing to be covered made each plot feel rushed and inconsequential. Iuti killing her family god—to whom she is essentially an avatar—should have been a book by itself. Alas, it’s stuffed into maybe a paragraph of blanket exposition.
And, sadly, this is only the beginning of disappointment. The magic system(s) are interesting and fresh—and poorly fleshed out. The relationships are multi-faceted—and lacking depth. The consequences of their potential failure are all encompassing—and vague. I mean, hell, there are two characters—both prostitutes—who support the main character(s) for chapters at a time, but we’re never told their names. They’re simply referred to as ‘the whores’ or the equivalent in the slang of this world.
The extra disappointing part of this is that Demon Drums is a scant 240 pages long. For an adult fantasy novel, that’s nothing. She could have upped it by one hundred pages and taken the time to flesh out plot-points and characters. She could have told us the prostitutes’ names. But she didn’t.
There is but one section of the Demon Drums that felt polished, and, well, it was messed up. If you like Silence of the Lambs-like vibes, maybe—despite the rough start—this book is for you. If you do like Silence of the Lambs-like vibes, though, you’re going to be disappointed by the Disney-esque ending.
And those last two sentences sum up why, despite all the cool ideas, despite unique magic systems, despite interesting plot devices, despite solid writing, Demon Drums doesn’t really work. It’s just too all over the place.
There are flying dolphins in this world. Magical, mythical flying dolphins. Except they never quite make it on screen. There’s a sentient sea-mimic that can seemingly only mimic humans and sea creatures. Wanting to fly, he somehow becomes incorporeal and bargains to catch a ride in the body of a bird. For some reason, the cost of a ride within a bird is a large physical object of no apparent use to a bird. There’s a human-trafficking thread that barely comes into focus, let alone gets properly explained, despite being extremely relevant to several of the plots. There are two evil witches who share not only a goal, but also a name, though their affiliation is loose at best. This sort of WTFery is omnipresent; the second you're starting to really dip into the world, something bizarre and inconsequential gets between you and the story.
***Serious spoilers abound after this point ***
I think fantasy need a new rule: you’re not allowed to use a painting of of a woman with hibiscus flowers in her hair on a beach as the cover and then have spend a significant amount of time dedicated to the concept of cultivating a living person’s skin to make drums out of. That’s so, so not okay.
Sadly, I think this was the best part of the book. It felt concrete, like Severance truly understood every facet about the demon drummers and their nefarious plans for Iuti’s skin. The stakes were clear, and the tension was palpable. Even though I knew that, realistically, our protagonist and her protégé were going to escape, I still cheered her on when she decided suicide was preferable to being force-fed until her body—and her skin along with it—grew to accommodate the massive drum they planned to skin with her.
But I despise torture scenes, and every moment of her captivity was like torture-to-be. So while it was good—the only truly good section of the book, I’d argue—it was also horrible, and I hated it. I wanted to quit reading, but I knew that not knowing how Iuti’s encounter with the demon drummers ended would cause the topic to linger in my head longer. So I stormed ahead, grimacing, just so my stupid brain wouldn’t fixate of the what-ifs of a fictional story.
I expected their encounter with the demon drummers would last the rest of the book; it was only a few chapters before they made their daring escape. At this point my curiosity was piqued about a few things, such as how and why the preternaturally gifted protégé was preternaturally gifted. Once again, almost despite myself, I continued reading.
With a few pages of the back cover, I realized that none of my questions were actually going to be answered. Instead, a few more questions were trotted out, and the book ended with a happily-ever-after tone that was markedly absent from the rest of the book.
I really want to know why Iuti killing her family god was delegated to back story. That’s the novel I actually wanted to read.
Cover art by Mark Harrison: