Book Review: “Devilish” - by Cailey Tin
Enter the World of Psychopathic, Soul-Sucking Transfer Students and Immortal Boyfriends
At St. Teresa's Preparatory School for Girls, where barbed wire keeps the boys out and the elderly nuns keep the girls in, Jane Jarvis and Allison Concord are struggling to make it through their senior year.
Although Jane and Allison have never blended well at the school, at least they have each other. Then, following a horrible, humiliating catastrophe, Allison signs a mysterious, bizarre agreement with a new student. She suddenly speaks Latin with ease, dresses better, and refuses to even talk to Jane. She also took Elton, Jane's ex-boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Owen, a curiously knowledgeable freshman, helps Jane in discovering the shocking fact that Allison has sold her soul to the devil. Jane doesn't believe it at first. She plays along with the weirdness--and even gambles her own soul in order to rescue Allison. But events take a turn for the real, and Jane will have to save Allison from a cupcake nibbling devil in disguise!
Image from the artists of the Incandescent Review
Notable for her witty writing, Maureen Johnson is best known for her upper middle school books such as Suite Scarlett and Truly Devious. My first experience with one of her young adult books was "Devilish," which, admittedly, wasn't her best.
The story begins with Allison Concord, best friend to Jane Jarvis, our protagonist, throwing up out of nervousness. She has been anticipating her "Little"- freshman or sophomore students- for ages, and is afraid that she won’t get one, since Allison and Jane are seniors and the number of
Littles numbers are fewer. Predictably, getting a Little requires some form of popularity and likeability. Allison values both, and this trait of hers spurs into motion a series of events that lead to her eventually getting possessed. (More on that later) Jane, on the other hand, cannot seem to
care less. (Which is more expected given that senior students in most books typically ignore the lower-grade students.)
Allison’s unusual obsession with this program is weird, but everything that drives her personality is too. Which is probably why when the freshman transfer student (because of course our villain has to be a transfer student nobody knows about) says she can make Allison’s wildest dreams of gaining popularity come true. Allison agrees, going so far as to sign away her soul. If a hundred other girls were put in Allison’s shoes, they would’ve burst out laughing. Or throwing up, since that seems to be established as the status quo...
Because, I mean, can we just take a moment to acknowledge what Allison has done? A new student who has zero friends expects you to trade your soul away, and Allison gives a very rational, very normal response: “Where’s the pen and where do I sign?”
One of the glaring issues in this book is that we don’t understand why Jane and Allison’s friendship is worth fighting for. Jane is betrayed by Allison whose betrayal includes- but is not limited to- a secret relationship with Jane's ex, who Jane is decidedly not over (as evidenced by her hundreds of torn-apart letters). As a result, the motivation to root for Allison flies out the window very early on.
That being said, there are some really impactful scenes in this book that stood out. Although we don’t get to see much of what Jane and Allison’s friendship used to be like, and Allison’s (selfish) motivations make her unlikeable to the readers, we are definitely made to sympathize with the protagonist (and thank god for that). Unlike us readers, she truly does love her best friend. So much so that it is hinted at that there may be something more between her and Allison, but I digress.
A particularly moving scene is where Allison is having a panic attack after regretting the deal she has made with Lanalee, to the point that she runs to the bathroom with pills to take her own life. Jane follows her, and her desperate attempt to save her best friend is raw, truthful, an anguished reaction illustrated beautifully.This is where some type of magic occurs, and it is a shame that the story doesn’t shed too much light on this magical aspect. To clarify the fantasy aspect, there’s a system of spirits that search for easy victims. Then, they possess their bodies and sell their souls, which is a sentimental comparison of the ongoing fight for fame in this world today. Anyway, there's some organization where the spirits can level up in "ranks" depending on how many years of experience they have. Experience with what, you ask? Experience with entering a victim's body and forcing themselves to bleed to death on behalf of that body.
Jane, as a character, intrigues me because her personality can be snappy, impatient, and arrogant, the cause of which is rooted in her intelligence. She describes herself as someone who can understand anything as long as she tries, from academics to the reason behind her best friend turning against her. However, this intelligence isn’t showcased in any way that contributes to the plot. Jane has perfect grades, yes, but in the book, in terms of street-smarts, it wasn’t outstandingly above average. After all, the wisest thing to do was to leave Allison alone and cut her losses.
As for the other characters, most of them were static all throughout. Some appeared interesting, and one who had the potential to be compelling was Mr. Fields. At first, one gets the impression that he is just some creep who wants to help Jane for questionable reasons. The same can be said for Brother Frank, the school’s teacher, who is on the good side. However, as the story progresses and Mr. Field’s true identity is revealed, he plays almost no part in growing the supernatural origin story. Sister Charles had an interesting, dark backstory too, and after the horrific plot twist that she went through, one would expect that the story would explore her character more. However, the opportunity was completely wasted.
And this is just one example of the many things that could’ve been unveiled or delved deeper into.
On the other hand, I did not enjoy Jane’s relationship with Elton. Every time Elton faces a problem, he runs away from it. He didn't confront the issues when Allison needed help. Near the end of the book, it became faster in pace when Jane’s assignment from Lanalee, in order to be set free from their contract, is to get a kiss from Elton.
This gave me immediate whiplash, not allowing me to fully immerse in the plot. There were so many ways the story could’ve resolved the issue of Jane getting out of the contract. Ways that would have given Jane more agency. The good thing that came out of this was that the readers could appreciate Jane’s adhesion to her moral code by not kissing her best friend’s new boyfriend. It shows her sincerity and made her much more likable. In typical Maureen Johnson manner, Jane is able to be set free from her contract without having to kiss Elton in a witty and unexpected way.
Jane eventually does get over Elton after realizing he isn’t someone who sticks with her until the end, but a large impact of this discovery is less on character development than it is because of Owen, an immortal teenager who stole her heart. I wish that instead of so much time spent on these romances, we could have gotten Lanalee’s backstory. Our villain could have been fleshed out deeper than being a stereotypical psychopath with a knack for unhinged sarcasm.
Moving on, even after Jane finds a loophole in Lanalee’s deal, Lanalee has one last trick up her sleeve. The ending had me quite confused. Owen, now Jane’s romantic interest, tells her, "You’re with us now." This means that Jane is now a part of the organization that stops such soul-possessing devils, but what exactly will she do in this organization? Cut people’s toes again (yes, that happens)? Also, won’t anybody notice in the future that Jane’s boyfriend is immortal? Overall, Johnson’s voice in every book she pens always stands out because the narrative is comedic and sassy and, most importantly, relatable.
Cailey Tin is an interview editor of Paper Crane Journal. She is an Asia-based staff writer and podcast co-host at The Incandescent Review, and her work has been published in Fairfield Scribes, Gypsophila zine, Alien Magazine, and more. She has work forthcoming in the Eunoia Review and Cathartic Lit. Visit her Instagram @itscaileynotkylie.