“The Devil’s Apprentice” is like no other Young Adult book I’ve read. It takes you directly to the Christian Hell and then makes you think through what exactly Hell is and how and why it works the way it does.
It sets Philip, a (very) good boy, who seems to have been sent to Hell through a misunderstanding, a series of challenges where to save Lucifer from death, he has to learn to make the evil choices rather than the good ones. Philip’s challenges confront him with a variety of ethical problems, some simple, some not.
In the beginning, Philip’s goodness blinds him to the choices he should be making but when he’s put under pressure, experiencing anger and jealousy and betrayal and just how terribly unfair everything is, other choices open up for him.
When he’s not being tested, young Philip is out and about making friends and enemies of demons and devils and falling in love with Satina, a young temptress devil who is trying to help him solve the puzzle of why the immortal Lucifer is dying.
I liked the fact that the book goes beyond the simple humour of making Hell an inversion of our world – making everything tonight or yesternight rather than today or yesterday, praising demons for behaving even worse than they’re expected to, having rotting food as a delicacy – and takes an, often gruesome, look at the nature of endless, pointless, punishment.
The longer he is Hell, the less clear right and wrong is to Philip. He is innately good but even good people stumble over some choices, especially when some of the devils and demons around him are so likeable and so welcoming and when he has the opportunity to acquire huge amounts of power.
The plot is clever but it’s the fearless world-building, underpinned by rigorous subjecting of difficult situations to an examination that often seems to pit logic against ethics that sets the book apart.
It’s hard to imagine “The Devil’s Apprentice” getting published in the US, never mind finding its way into school libraries. The US struggled with Harry Potter (not because it constantly pitched decency and courage against power and privilege but because it used witchcraft), what would they make of a YA series that generates sympathy for the Devil? As for having King David in Hell because he arranged the death of the husband of a woman he desired, while the logic is unassailable, my guess is that it’s too much of a dog whistle item for American school libraries. The banned book folks would be lubricating their corruption of youth arguments with glee.
Fortunately, this book is Danish so it not only made it into print but spawned the hugely popular “The Great Devil War” series since its publication in 2005. The first English translation of the six books in the series was published in October 2018. I’m hoping it’s going to attract a huge following.