Helen Grant – Demons of Ghent

helengrant-demonsofghentPeople are falling from the rooftops of Ghent. But did they throw themselves off – or did somebody push them?

Veerle has seen enough death to last a lifetime. But death isn’t finished with Veerle just yet.

When people start to die in her new home town, some put it down to a pate of suicides. Some blame the legendary demons of Ghent. Only Veerle suspects that something – somebody – has followed her to wreak his vengeance.

But she watched the hunter die, didn’t she?

I love Helen Grant’s brand of YA mystery. I’ve read all of them so far and enjoyed them all. They’re always tightly plotted and very well-paced, with a psychological and/or paranormal element added in the mix. With the first book in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy, Silent Saturday, Grant moved away from standalone stories and started a trilogy. While the ending of that book was a bit of a cliffhanger and left me wanting Demons of Ghent immediately, I found that Grant’s abilities to pace a story worked just as well in a series setting as it did in a standalone story. Starting Demons of Ghent though was a bit disorienting; it was a continuation of Veerle’s story, but not a direct one and Veerle’s life and situation has completely changed.  

After the ending of the previous book Veerle has undergone a long period of recovery and has moved to Ghent to live with her father and his new partner Anneke. To say that this situation is less than ideal is an understatement. They are living in a two-bedroom apartment and Anneke is very, very pregnant with Veerle’s half brother and isn’t too pleased at Veerle’s having taken over what was supposed to be the baby’s room. Of course, it goes deeper than that, as Anneke is severely displeased at suddenly having a live-in step daughter who she never counted on having to care for and doesn’t much like anyway. And if I wanted to be really ungenerous here, I’d say she’s jealous of the fact that Geert does obviously love his daughter and she’s afraid that he’ll choose Veerle over his new family. In any case, Anneke turns into the step mother from hell, basically telling Veerle she has to move out – and preferably never come back – when she becomes eighteen or Anneke will ruin her relationship with her dad. For a girl trying to come to grips with the traumatic experiences of not just being confronted by the Hunter, but losing her mother as well, this is a less than happy and healthy environment to regain her footing.

The one pillar you’d expect Veerle to be able to lean on, her boyfriend Kris, has done a disappearing act, dropping out of contact a week before the start of the book. This has left Veerle hurt and confused and when she runs into the previously thought dead Hommel, Kris’ ex-girlfriend, Veerle soon puts two and to together to make four-and-a-half. By this point Grant had me going “What the hell, Kris!” out loud, as I really, really hadn’t expected this for the boy we met in Silent Saturday. Meanwhile, when she tries to find Hommel again, Veerle meets Bram, a student at Ghent University. Bram is kind of dreamy and has a good heart and a good head on his shoulders, but that’s what I thought about Kris as well and look how that turned out, so I found myself being a bit apprehensive of the guy, though he won me over completely by the end of the book. It’ll be interesting to see where Grant takes this relationship in the next book, because of course there are complications throughout the book, not least Veerle’s lingering feelings for Kris.

The murder mystery at the heart of the plot is completely creepy and also marks a return to the supernatural gloss that marked much of Grant’s previous work. Like the mystery of the stained glass in The Glass Demon, the murders seem to have a connection to a local legend, in this case the titular Demons of Ghent, who are connected to the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the master pieces of Northern European art and one of Belgium’s national treasures. Its role in the mystery is fascinating and horrific and one of several “SHE DID WHAT?!’ evoking revelations Grant works into the novel. I really enjoyed Grant’s return to a hint of the supernatural, because it’s something she does very well; while the supernatural element is never presented as something that should be accepted without question, she also makes it plausible enough that it isn’t easily dismissed. I also have to note that Veerle has the worst luck. After what happened with the Hunter to be drawn into another such case speaks to a real talent at attracting trouble.

It’s hard to discuss too much of the novel without giving the game away, but suffice it to say I found the book compelling. The scenes set in the Gravensteen, Ghent’s medieval castle, were fascinating, especially since I’ve visited the place and I could picture the setting really vividly. But Grant makes Ghent shine throughout the book. It’s clear that she loves the city, understandably so because it is a lovely place, and she uses its attractions in the fullest measures possible to tell her tale. But while Ghent is almost a character in its own right, Veerle remains the heart of the narrative. If Silent Saturday was the story of Veerle breaking free of her mother’s smothering embrace and discovering she was a person of her own, Demons of Ghent is the tale of Veerle trying to piece together her life as her own person, to find out who she wants to be. It’ll be interesting to see whether by the end of Urban Legends, the concluding book in the trilogy, Veerle will have a clearer picture of who Veerle de Keyser truly is and what she wants to do with her life. In any case I fully intend to be there to find out, as she is an irresistible protagonist and Grant definitely knows how to tell an intriguing story.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.