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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/15/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Sympathy for the Devil"

Sympathy for the Devil
by Holly Lisle
published by Baen Books, 1996

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This book was published by Baen, which is responsible for giving us the delightful "Chicks In Chain Mail" series. The story takes place in Charlotte, North Carolina (the Bible Belt, no less!), where a compassionate, widowed nurse named Dayne Kuttner, who is sick at heart from being forced to maintain the bodies of comatose and brain-dead patients, as well as at the injustice of seeing good people die while bad people seem to live forever, sends up a prayer to God which is more of a challenge. She asks Him to give all the damned one more chance to redeem themselves. "You said ask and believe. So now I'm asking. Let them have the chance to repent, God. All of them. Every single soul in Hell. Let them have the chance to learn from the mistakes they made; let them into Heaven if they repent."

Like most average Christians, Dayne is unaware of the fact that the damned in Hell can be redeemed at any time; all they have to do is ask for God's forgiveness, in all sincerity, the same way that she prayed. Unfortunately, the damned are just too proud to ask God's forgiveness. All of them, from Satan himself down to the merest imp, would rather be damned than admit they were wrong to rebel against God.

But being the just and merciful Father that He is, God decides to grant Dayne's prayer--in His own way. Most average Christians are also unaware of the fact that God has a sense of humor. In fact, He's a consummate practical joker, which is why you should be careful what you pray for, because you might get it. In this case, God contacts Satan and gives him permission to set up a branch office in Charlotte, to be staffed entirely by demons, imps, succubae and other infernal denizens in human disguise. Oh, He puts plenty of restrictions on them, like forbidding them to physically harm a human being, using threats of violence, force or coercion to make them sign a demonic pact, and any other underhanded device. He just wants Satan and his minions to play by the rules and use conventional means to persuade humans to sign their souls over to them; promises, bribes, offers of money and power, access to attractive and willing sexual partners, etc. In other words, the same recruiting tactics that all your average, high-powered corporate firms use to attract recruits.

Naturally Satan jumps at the chance to raise some hell on earth and immediately puts his second in command, Agonostis--Chief Fallen Angel in Charge of Lust and Fornication--in charge of their new branch office, with orders to not only increase profits and souls for the first fiscal year, but to bring him the soul of Dayne Kuttner in thirty days. Since Agonostis' fornication numbers are currently at an all time low, due to the spread of the AIDS virus, he's in no position to refuse. So, after setting up office in an abandoned warehouse, with over fifty-eight thousand of Hell's finest fiends, a bunch of computers and boxes of assorted supplies (instruments of torture, law books and contracts, clothing consisting of hellish polyester leisure suits in Lava Orange, Gangrene Green, Boil Red, etc.), Agonostis puts himself through an earthly hell called a shopping mall, disguised as a balding, paunchy, middle-aged man, and emerges with new clothes and a new body, both of which he changed into in the men's room. Now stereotypically tall, dark, and handsome and calling himself Adam D'Agonostis, he goes about the damnation of Dayne Kuttner, mixing business with pleasure as he makes all the right moves and finds her responding in all the ways a small, dark, and pretty woman usually responds to the attentions of a handsome man, especially when her own man has been dead for a year.

But a funny thing happens to Agonostis while he's on the highway to hell; he ends up falling in love with Dayne, while she's falling in love with him. Slowly but surely, the evil in him begins to turn into goodness, to the chagrin of Satan, who sends in Agonostis' archrival Jezerael, a female demon who's lusting after his job, as a backup plan. She goes about the damnation of Dayne in a much more businesslike way and actually seems on the verge of winning her soul, except for a small technicality she overlooks--and everyone knows the only way to beat the devil is on a technicality.

This book can best be classified as a serious comedy. It starts out humorous, becomes deadly earnest, then does a 180-degree turn and becomes funny again. Even God doesn't remain static; He appears as the conventional white-bearded and robed Christian god, as well as one-eyed Odin, and even as a full-figured African fertility goddess with braided hair, to keep checking on Dayne's welfare. So much for the atheistic claims about God's indifference! He does care about us, very much; He just doesn't want to interfere in our lives or try to influence our freely made choices. That's why He's mostly an observer nowadays, because nobody really wants divine intervention in their lives unless they ask for it with all sincerity, the same way that Dayne prayed for the damned, especially her late husband, a handsome devil with a weakness for other women. Holly Lisle must have a great deal of insight into the human soul, to be able to write about God and Satan in such a believable way, one that has you cheering for the good guys--not all of whom are angels--and gloating over the defeat of the bad guys, not all of whom are demons. By the end of the story, as damnation becomes salvation for one lonely soul, you may find yourself shedding a tear over the revelation that God does love us after all, so much that it hurts Him to see us screwing up our lives in pursuit of money, power, sex, fame, and all the other transient things that mean so little in the end.

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