A Good Contemporary YA, But A Bad SFF Novel: Tori Bovalino – The Devil Makes Three

I was very much looking forward to reading a book set in a library with a dangerous old grimoure and two teenagers who accidentally summon a demon and then have to fight its dark forces. Dark Academia, creepy tomes, and maybe a dash of romance is exactly what I was in the mood for. Sadly, I only got a nice romance with a paperthin SFF plot, a slumpy middle, and sloppy ending.

THE DEVIL MAKES THREE
by Tori Bovalino

Published: Page Street Kids, 2021
Hardback: 389 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: Tess Matheson was one of the few people on campus who didn’t think that the Jessop English Library was haunted.

Tess Matheson only wants three things: time to practice her cello, for her sister to be happy, and for everyone else to leave her alone.

Instead, Tess finds herself working all summer at her boarding school library, shelving books and dealing with the intolerable patrons. The worst of them is Eliot Birch: snide, privileged, and constantly requesting forbidden grimoires. After a bargain with Eliot leads to the discovery of an ancient book in the library’s grimoire collection, the pair accidentally unleash a book-bound demon.

The demon will stop at nothing to stay free, manipulating ink to threaten those Tess loves and dismantling Eliot’s strange magic. Tess is plagued by terrible dreams of the devil and haunting memories of a boy who wears Eliot’s face. All she knows is to stay free, the demon needs her… and he’ll have her, dead or alive.

The Devil Makes Three is told through dual first-person POVs which lends itself particularly well to a romance. Tess Matheson works at Jessop Library under the strict eyes of her great-aunt Mathilde. The reason she works there in addition to her waiting job at Emilio’s is that Falk is a super expensive school and Tess’ parents are on the edge of poverty. But it’s all worth it for Tess because this way, she can help her sister get a great education. Never mind that Tess gets too little sleep and way too little time for practicing her beloved cello.

Eliot is the principal’s son and as such may be seen as just another privileged rich boy. But he has his own secrets and problems. First of all, he’s a witch! Secondly, he really doesn’t get along with his dad, he’s shy and bookish, and he’d much rather stay with his sick mom in the English countryside. Oh yeah, he has a British accent but that was clearly just a fancy on the author’s part because while he may say “crisps” instead of “chips”, she forgot to make him call “gas” petrol and “soda” fizzy drink. That literally took me 30 seconds to Google so if you want your character to be British, do better! Throwing in a “bloody hell” once does not convince.

But Eliot’s fake-Britishness aside, both him and Tess are pretty interesting characters with very complicated families. The part I enjoyed best about this whole book was finding out how their problematic situations came to be. Eliot’s mother is very ill and his close relationship to her is tangible on every page. It also explains his desire for forbidden grimoires and books on the occult – he’d do anything to save her!
Tess had a world of different problems. First of all, there’s her family’s finencial situation and how that came to be. I enjoyed learning more about that and how Tess is handling things, even though it’s really painful. Tess’s passion is the cello and if she wants her sister to have a good life, the cello will have to take second place. So although Tess isn’t the most well-developed character, her actions show that she is willing to sacrifice her life’s dream for her sister and that makes it easy to like her.

The protagonists’ “meet cute” is based on a misunderstanding which is gladly resolved pretty quickly. But then each of them is determined to misunderstand the other one as often as possible in order to artificially create tension. I found that technique super weak, especially because there wasn’t even any great banter between them. They’re clearly attracted to each other but each of them sticks to certain ideas about the other and thus decides a romance is impossible. It’s pretty dumb but again, the author got over that bit and eventually managed to make these two bond somewhat more organically over the course of this novel. After all, they soon have a common enemy to fight.

Which leads me to the rather weaksauce fantasy/horror plot. It starts out okay, I guess. They find a very hidden very old book, Tess reads a couple of lines from it, things go weird. Random books start bleeding ink, both Tess and Eliot are having hallucinations, and Tess has a visitor in her dreams who promises to make all her deepest desires come true if only she gives in. Of course, instead of talking to each other, the two protagonists individually pretend everything is fine because reasons I guess. And then a whole chunk of the book just goes on repeating like that. The demon/devil that they summoned does the same trick over and over again, has a whole bunch of threats but sticks to the same mild scare tactics. If you want a properly scary book, this isn’t it. There was exactly one scene that I found truly unsettling, the rest felt more like cheesy teen horror movie material.

The last third of the book finally picks up some speed again, although I can’t say it did well. The solution to the kids’ demon problem is extremely unoriginal and the last-minute “twist” Bovalino threw in there was super obvious from very early on. I mean, there are about nine named characters in this entire book so if a point gets mentioned over and over again with one character coming up every time, it’s not hard to suspect they are more than they seem…
I was also kind of shocked with what callousness some character deaths were handled. It’s incredible that one character’s demise is taken with almost just a shrug, then another with a couple of sad lines, and that’s it. I mean, Tess does some truly terrible stuff in this story but she seems to get over everything like a breeze. The only things that rile her are when her sister is in danger of when Eliot’s life is on the line – the boy she’s known for a few weeks is more important to her than the great-aunt who saved her and her sister’s education and also happens to be family!

Generally, the further along I read, the more I felt a disconnect between the events that took place and the characters’ actions and feelings. I believe the author mostly wanted to write a romance between a bookish guy with a British accent and an emotionally hardened girl who’s good at music, and the whole demon thing was just an afterthought. You know, because you need a conflict or whatever.
Because if you take out the family backstories and the relationships between Tess/Eliot and their parents, that’s the focus of the entire book. Them endlessly thinking of each other and repeating cheesy lines in their heads. Eliot gets super protective of Tess (come on, think of something new to express love) and Tess dreams of kissing him but pretends not to like him because that’s what she saw in the movies, I suppose. And in the matter of a few chapters, they’d gladly die for each other. It’s rife with clichés and the only saving grace is that the few tender moments between them, where they truly opened up and were just people who liked each other, were well written.

The reason I didn’t hate this book despite all its flaws is that the non-fantastic parts, the parts about Tess’s family, her music, her sister, and generally her everyday mundane life, were really gripping. There were many interesting relationships there, big conflicts between her and her father especially, that I would have gladly read more about. And the same goes for Eliot. His fraught relationship to his father and his father’s girlfriend on the one hand was intriguing, but the deep bond he shares with his mother was a whole different level. And then he’s also magic! The book feeds us tidbits about the characters’ past as it goes along and I enjoyed those much more than anything to do with this boring-ass devil whose actions make no sense anyway. Seriously, he has a certain ability but he waits months to use it the first time… There is no world-building here, not much thought has been put into either Eliot’s magic or the grimoire, because those things just do whatever is convenient to the plot. Never mind if it’s internally consistent. This was never meant to be a fantasy or a horror novel. It’s also not Dark Academia, because having one character work at the library isn’t enough. There’s no particular love for academical pursuits, thre’s no scholarly atmosphere, the plot could have been set anywhere, the book could have been found in someone’s attic, and everything would have worked just the same.

So no, this was not a good SFF book. This wasn’t even an okay SFF book. But it could have been a great contemporary novel about two teenagers who feel lost, finding strength in each other and learning how to deal with their problems. I don’t think I’d pick up another Bovalino book with superantural elements, but I would definitely try a non-SFF novel of hers.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Okay

6 thoughts on “A Good Contemporary YA, But A Bad SFF Novel: Tori Bovalino – The Devil Makes Three

  1. TheFantasticalWorldOfReading says:

    I went into this book with very low expectations (I don’t normally read contemporary horror) and didn’t expect much fantasy, so that might be why I surprisingly enjoyed it a lot. The character exploration was also what really sucked my in and I loved it mostly because of that. I’m sad to see that your expectations weren’t met.

    Like

    • Dina says:

      Me too. I’d much rather enjoy a book I didn’t expect than the other way around. I guess my assumptions were just a bit off. If it has “the devil” in the title (and on the page) I expect a lot of horror/fantasy. But I’m glad you enjoyed it and I wish the author all the best!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Shame! I love dark academia and haunted libraries. It’s interesting that the character deaths were handled callously, because I swear I have been reading more books where it feels like the author just doesn’t care that people have died. A strange trend! I hope it’s all in my head!

    Liked by 1 person

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