I have been reading pretty solidly for 39 years and by now I have a fairly good idea of the kinds of books I like and the kinds of ones I don’t. But not wanting to be entirely predictable I occasionally try something that I think will not be my sort of thing. Just in case. Usually this works out as expected. For example I thought Eat, Pray, Love would be utter pants and it was. But there was a slim chance that it might not have been so I gave it a go. For another example I didn’t really expect to like a horror story in which most of the plot is driven by teenagers (horror being something I grew out of when I was about 20) (around the time I last had a lot to do with teenagers en masse). But in this instance the slim chance was in my favour. I loved Pandaemonium.
The story is a simple one. The senior students of St Peter’s Catholic High School are taken on retreat to a remote spot in the Scottish highlands because one of their classmates stabbed another one of their classmates to death and someone in authority thinks that a bit of hiking is just the thing to get them all over their ordeal. Unfortunately their camp site is next door to a mysterious Ministry of Defence facility at which experimentation goes awry in a major way and the gates of somewhere closely resembling Hell are opened to unleash creatures intent on killing all humans they encounter. The kids therefore have to stop their dancing and snogging and fight for their lives with not much more than their wits and a rolled up tea towel.
A little bit more than half of the story takes place before the fighting of monsters begins which should be a point against the book but Brookmyre takes care to paint such vivid and varied portraits of the children, their teachers and even some of the military types that by the time the monster-fighting started I was heavily invested in the survival of the characters. Their secrets, heartaches, crushes and worries are so credibly human that you can’t help but fall in love with them collectively and hope they’ll triumph over the daemons which you know are just around the corner.
And while on a surface level the language and the violence (I’ll be honest, neither are for the faint-hearted) might lead some to think the book is just cursing and gore there is another level to it. There is the gently laid out moral tale that you wish all teenagers could be made to understand without having to go through the trauma of seeing their friends mutilated beyond recognition. And then there is the deep and very thoughtful questioning of both the trappings of organised religion and the very nature of faith itself. This theme is also not for the faint-hearted though if like me you spent 12 unhappy years in a Catholic girls’ school you just might identify with one of the students and her musings
Most of the time Caitlin can just zone out during mass, let her mind drift so that the tedium passes quicker but occasionally she can’t help but pay attention and that’s when the sheer inanity of it really grates on her cognitive faculties…We believe in one God, the father the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, a.k.a the intelligent designer. The Vatican had latterly decided it could accommodate evolution within its view of creation, largely because it could no longer accommodate the embarrassment it was feeling by continuing to do otherwise, but it was adamant that acceptance of evolution didn’t preclude God from having started it. Yes, God set in motion this astronomically complex process but knew all along despite the infinitely branching possibilities created by an incalculable multiplicity of random factors that the end product would be mankind. Begging the question if that was always the plan why did he take the long way round instead of creating mankind right off the bat?…Having waited 9 billion years for earth to form then having held off for another 4 and a half billion for his chosen species to fully evolve he blows his wad early by sending down his Messiah during the Bronze Age? If he wanted us to believe in him and to live by his word couldn’t he have hung on another infinitesimal couple of millennia and sent his miracle working super hero ambassador in the age of broadcast media and other verifiable means of record instead of staking 13 and a half billion years work on the reliability of a few goat herders in an insignificant backwater of a primitive civilization?
Which of course brings us to the writing itself. It is bitingly clever, funny and quick and you sense that every individual word has been carefully considered before being slotted into exactly the right place. How else would a description of teenagers as “sophomoric mind clones pathetically enslaved by the tyranny of cool” come about?
Pandaemonium is undoubtedly not for everyone. If you don’t like rude language, horror-style violence or the questioning of religious dogma then I’d suggest you stay away. But if you can live with those things and enjoy great writing and human characters with all their foibles then give it a go. Even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of thing there’s a slim chance you’ll love it and sometimes taking a risk pays off.
What about the audio book?
Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Though (confession time) I might be a little biased. It is narrated by a Scottish bloke (Kenny Blyth) and I adore the Scottish accent. Seriously. A Scottish lad could read me the phone book and I would swoon. Heck I’d swoon even if it was a Scottish lassie. But still, it’s a delight to listen to.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Author website I couldn’t find one so head to Wikipedia
Narrator Kenny Blyth
Publisher ISIS Audio Books 
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 13 hours 3 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
Bernadette – Thanks for this review. I agree with you in general that horror is not my thing. But this story really sounds compelling, both in terms of the characters and in terms of the questions and issues it explores. What an interesting concept…
Question religious dogma, fine. Rude language, okay. Horror-type violence, no. So I’ll skip this. Now the first two things in a good, page-turning thriller with no horror and no gratuitous violence would be fine, but not this. Maybe I’ll go back to the clerical category and try to find some open, questioning texts.
I’ve only read one book by Brookmyre and much to my surprise I loved it – Quite Ugly One Morning. I went to a talk by him last year and he is a very good speaker. He read an extract from Pandaemonium, which made me wonder just how much violence I can read. It looks as though it’s well worth reading and I hope to get round to it after I’ve read some of his other books. My son is a fan and has lent me 3 or 4 to read.
It sounds interesting, and I could probably stomach the violence and the language, but I tend to keep religion and crime separate so it is probably not for me.
I just reread your post. I am getting a bit interested. I also sympathize with your school history, although I only know of similar educational histories from friends. I grew up in a bi-cultural household, Eastern European Jewish and Irish, but not religious, in a very open family, where the children were taught to question very early on–not always great for the parents. I was the one explaining the birds-and-the-bees to downstairs teenage neighbors who went to Catholic school.
@Kathy when I talk of ‘horror-style’ violence I guess I mean there are descriptions of limbs being torn off and blood splattering everywhere but it’s the kind of thing that a part of your brain always knows is made up – I differentiate it from the ‘serial-killer’ violence where there are endless descriptions of torture perpetrated on someone – usually a woman -that you’re always worried the author has spent a bit too much time visualising.
As for the religion thing I can only say that I found a religious schooling very difficult – the whole ‘not questioning’ thing didn’t sit well with me (still doesn’t), neither does a focus on the symbolic show of devotion that seemed to be at the heart of the religion I was taught – it’s quite rare to find a book that shows characters grappling with the kinds of questions that I pondered at that age with any degree of credibility – there are plenty that do it in a half-arsed or superficial way but not many that treat it as a serious thing.
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Mainly for Kathy:
Out of CB’s 13 novels to date, the two I’d recommend you (low in violence) as Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks and Sacred Art of Stealing – but I’d also underline what Benadette says – Brookmyre’s action scenes aren’t quite cartoonic, but most are certainly tongue-in-cheek. In a Brookmyre novel you always know that if your hero gets shot its always in the shoulder and if there’s any nastiness meted out on the bad buys – which can and does happen in most of the stories there is almost a surreal exaggeration of creative injuries and implements used. If CB rewrote Act 3 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, we wouldn’t have a subtle cut to Mercutio’s side … Mercutio would be lying in several pieces at the sides of fair Capua’s streets, and Romeo would headbutt Tybalt hard in indignant revenge like a John Potter header to win St Mirren the SFA Cup – all fantastic nonsense of course but we’re reading this for a witty, page-turning good yarn with a few truths mixed in with the gags, not some depressing exposition of the human condition. But then I would say that – I’m a bit of a fan!
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