The Mephisto Covenant
After a somewhat rocky start, The Mephisto Covenant by Trinity Faegan presents an intriguing world set-up where good and evil battle for the souls of the living in very real and complicated ways... and evidently with a somewhat low success rate as far as the good guys are concerned. I want to warn you up front that the main problem with this novel is that the first few chapters are infected with an acute case of info-dump, thus making it difficult to warm up to the story at first with all the dense explanations, which could potentially cause the reader to set the whole thing aside. If you can manage to wade through the info-dump, though, then you'll see that the story finds its own peculiar rhythm and presents some interesting moments, though there are still some distinct flaws.
Teenage Sasha lives with her mother in San Francisco, but she's not terribly interested in school this fall. This past year, Sasha's "accountant" father was murdered in a hotel room in Russia, an act that was dismissed as a random robbery gone wrong, but this explanation does not satisfy Sasha in the least bit. She's desperate to find out just what happened to her father and will go to any lengths to discover the truth... even if that means striking a deal with a rather shady fellow named Eryx whose name has been whispered about town as heading up a secret society called the Ravens. Those who join the Ravens have been granted a wish and everyone seems to swear that their wishes come true. When given the opportunity to join, Sasha decides to see what Eryx can tell her, but it doesn't quite get to that point as she quickly realizes she's been set up and the leader of this particular sect of the Ravens is a rather evil fellow that used to date Sasha's mother and wants to hand her over to Eryx. (It's a small, evil world in this novel.) Sasha is nearly killed by mom's ex and his minions but a mysterious young man appears, freezes time, rescues her, lets spill some crucial information, and then wipes her memory. (As you can imagine, for the sake of the narrative, a silly little memory wipe won't exactly keep Sasha from feeling like she's missing something once she returns to life after the Raven attack.) The young man who saves Sasha is named Jax and he's not exactly young, seeing as he's a few centuries old. He and his brothers (who follow on his heels to deal with the whole Ravens group) are sons of hell -- and weirdly enough, they're kind of the good guys but with a twist. The sons of hell are the children of Mephistopheles, fated to rid the world of those who have pledged their souls to Eryx, who is working on behalf of Satan. This doesn't mean the sons of hell kill these people, as that would send their souls to Satan and only strengthen him, but rather, Jax and his brothers keep these individuals forever trapped in "hell on earth," an (endless?) cavern where they will never die and never escape. The righteous task of the sons of hell is mitigated by their own dark desires (sex, violence, etc.). They are doomed to eventual damnation, despite their "good" work, though there is just one tiny loophole that could result in their redemption. "The Mephisto Covenant" was made between God and Mephistopheles -- if a son of hell finds and falls in love with an Anabo (a pure soul and essentially an angel on earth), then his soul can be saved. The appearance of an Anabo is an incredibly rare event (indeed, the sons of hell have only ever come across two in their centuries' old existence). When an Anabo appears on earth, she is fated to a particular son of Hell, who catches her "scent" when near her and who then has the opportunity to save his soul if their love is true.
If you haven't already guessed it, Sasha is an Anabo. As "a daughter of Eve," she doesn't feel the same pull towards evil that normal humans do, even in simple jealousies or petty angers, as her soul is totally without sin. (The idea here is that Adam and Eve had a daughter, Aurora, prior to their Fall and Anabos are somehow the legacy of this.) Sasha's being an Anabo is a huge problem for Eryx, because (1) an Anabo's love can redeem a son of hell as previously mentioned and (2) only then can the Anabo and son of hell come together to bear children, who will also fight against Eryx with the rest of the sons of hell. Once the eldest member of the sons of hell, Eryx is now on the side of evil and constantly works to damn his brothers, too. The Ravens are simply a cover for Eryx's attempts to recruit souls for Satan, and once sworn to him, they can never be returned, unless he releases that person from his or her contract... which essentially never happens. A soul lost is lost forever.
But back to Sasha and Jax. Basically, Jax is obsessed with Sasha from the moment he smells her. After he and his brothers take care of the Ravens, it's all he can do to not watch her 24/7. He knows this is his chance at redemption and he's desperate not to screw this up, but there's no precedent for a son of hell keeping his Anabo love safe from Eryx -- only one brother has ever found his Anabo... and she was brutally raped and killed by Eryx before she could be taken to safety. Yikes. The only thing this taught the sons of hell is that once an Anabo is marked (aka has sex), Eryx will know where she is the same way that *they* know where she is and unless it's within the safety of their stronghold, then she is in great danger. Oh, and there's also the fact that the more time an Anabo spends with a son of hell, the more she becomes like him and begins to feel negative emotions like anger. And some intense strength and speed.
Was this enough information for you? To toss at you in the first few chapters? You think? Oh man. Just wait. There's more.
Sasha returns home from her ordeal with the Ravens (fuzzy on the details between when they attacked her and when she woke up, alone, without a scratch on her) to find her home life in uproar. Her mother is going to be deported back to Russia and Sasha is being packed off to Colorado to live with an uncle she never knew about -- her father's sister's husband. Worse than this, it appears that bad blood between her father and his sister means that her new aunt loathes ever fiber of Sasha's being and would kick her out on the street if it wasn't for Sasha's uncle who's always had a thing for Sasha's mom. Sasha has two cousins -- teenage boys that are polar opposites; one of whom is obviously as evil as his mother and the other plays video games all day. I don't think I need to go on about how horrifying this general picture is for Sasha, do I? It sucks. Of course, there is one up side to Sasha's expulsion to Colorado -- she now finds herself in Telluride, which is conveniently the exact same place where the sons of hell make their home. Still, it's not like she's safe because even there, a branch of the Ravens is popping up and you can depend on a rather shocking body count before the book wraps up.
On the whole, there's a lot about this book that's kind of confusing. The incredibly dense explanations and set-up at the beginning of the book is a real turn-off and it takes a while before you feel like Faegan hits her stride. While I doubt that many teens have read JR Ward's "Black Dagger Brotherhood" romance novel series, I was very strongly reminded of it once we got all the set-up details out of the way here. Each JR Ward book features one of the Brothers (vampire warriors) and the woman who will ultimately become his mate. Lots of denial/drama, lots of sex, eventual happy ending. In that world, vampires are born, not made; Brothers mate for life and they all live in a compound where they fight evil, which threatens both their race and humanity in general. This book has a similar premise, where Jax (who is often seen as the leader in a fight) finds his Anabo and there's drama before the eventual coupling. Honestly, I find the whole Anabo concept to be a bit weak, as there's no established explanation for their presence or rarity. It's not like it's something passed on within a family or one Anabo every generation (despite the Aurora link), which might make some kind of sense, but nope. Granted, it's possible that many Anabo have lived and died without being identified by the sons of hell, but still, it's disappointing to not have any real example as to why Sasha has appeared and why others have not really come before her in larger numbers. (Particularly given the fact that I'd bet you the subsequent books follow the JR Ward format of giving each brother his Anabo love.)
Surprisingly, despite the whole idea that Sasha is destined for Jax, there isn't the same assurance that they will naturally fall in love and this is one thing I appreciated. Sasha and Jax were surprisingly realistic about the chances of real love, despite their attraction. It might not be a very teenager thing to do, but Sasha actually questioned whether or not her feelings for Jax were real and her own or if they had to do with the whole Anabo thing. Sasha is very concerned about her free will and ability to decide for herself in all this... and Jax is rather all or nothing -- he doesn't want Sasha to feel like she needs to stay with him if they're not in love. (Those qualms don't keep them from making out every five minutes, of course, whether that be on ski slopes, at school, or in Jax's bedroom, but still, it's nice to see teens thinking with things other than their hormones.) The whole storyline puts a great amount of emphasis on free will on both sides of this equation. Of course, the benefit of free will is somewhat painted in a negative light, given that it's what's keeping Sasha in the world's most unhealthy living environment for much longer than she should (though perhaps the home life is about on par with how utterly horrifying school becomes when disgusting rumors about Sasha are spread around). In this world, people are definitely free to make their own decisions, even if they're the wrong ones and they carry the consequences of losing one's soul on foolish wishes, however well-intentioned. Good people are damned in the course of the book and the author treats this with care -- acknowledging that people can make bad decisions which have catastrophic repercussions.
As a result of the complicated moral questions, the somewhat bleak outlook on humanity, and a WAY steamier sex scene than one usually finds in YA, I would suggest that the younger teen set steer clear of this one. Faegan doesn't shy away from crafting dreadful scenes at school and home for Sasha. Oddly enough, it never really has to do with drugs or alcohol, which generally receive a pass in YA fiction when used as an excuse for teaching kids lessons about those evils... here, everything that people do to each other stems entirely from their own evil desires and thoughts. Sure, negative wishes are magnified in to really evil things when a person pledges their soul to Satan, but it's still terrifying what people are capable of doing entirely of their own volition in this book. I'm not talking axe murderers or rape scenes, but I am talking about terrible gossip, sexual assault, domestic violence, epic peer pressure, betrayal, and layers and layers of lies. (I didn't even go in to the whole twisted scene that is Sasha's family history here.) That said, all of these things are what make this book kind of interesting. The wide expanse of moral gray areas are fascinating and, let's face it, the reader is pulling for Jax and Sasha to get together for their own reasons and not for some pact, even if it does save his soul. There's something very oddly compelling about this book once you've worked through and sorted out all its mythology, but even that isn't totally enough to redeem it. Sadly, I thought the ending was somewhat of a let-down, being too simplistic and somewhat undermining the complications of the world. At least there's a conclusion and it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, as one is very aware that this is the first book of a series (this one is subtitled "The Redemption of Ajax"). It wraps things up too tidily for something that's been reveling in difficult choices and judgments. It was disappointing to not be able to absolutely say that the book turned itself around once the labyrinthine explanations were done with. I so wanted it to end with a bang so one could simply say that beginnings just weren't Faegan's thing, but it turns out the same is true for endings. Ultimately, her strength is in the middle stuff -- having fully gotten in to the world, she can do interesting things and I guess you better enjoy it while it lasts because all too soon you'll be sighing over a rushed and predictable ending. Still, I was entertained enough while reading it to be compelled to finish it all in a day. I haven't mentally committed to the idea of reading the sequel until I get some kind of confirmation if Faegan is, indeed, going the JR Ward route with the new love story in each book, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for it when summaries pop up to see if I'm right.
I'm not exactly sure who to recommend this book to... fans of super-convoluted moral orders? Fans of hidden and twisted societies that hide from our own and live with their own rules and mythologies? (If it's the latter, then I'd suggest you go read Daughter of Smoke and Bone for something truly good.) It's not exactly for fans of the supernatural set or even for those who love YA about angels. I'll be curious to see who rallies around this one, as it's certainly a unique read. I didn't love it, but then... I spent a lot of time trying to explain and unravel it, so clearly Faegan crafted a world that caught my attention.
Note: I received an advanced review e-galley for the purpose of review from NetGalley.