The Devil Pulls the Strings by J. W. Zarek

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

It’s midnight in Amazon Employee Work Camp 1, and that’s exciting, because whenever it’s a new day in Seattle I get new books! The Devil Pulls the Strings is an urban fantasy adventure by J. W. Zarek.

Our main character is Boone Daniels. Normally that might be silly and distracting, but don’t worry. Everything else is so silly and distracting that you’ll look back with nostalgia on the days when you thought naming your protagonist Bizarro Daniel Boone was weird. He is the lead singer of a band at the Missouri Renaissance festival and moonlights as a jouster. See, I told you. After crippling his best friend and bandmate over an airhorn blast, he promises to fill in at his friend’s upcoming gig in New York City. New York City is known for two things: inauthentic salsa and subjecting out-of-towners to wacky hijinks, so this should be good. Boone narrowly escapes being crushed by a murder piano and gun-toting goons, but luckily pushes Girl out of the way and into a waiting taxi. They speed off, only to discover that this is a magical taxi, mainly because they can afford the fare. It drops the pair off at the NYU campus, and Girl gets a name: Sapphire Anjou. Not sure what I was expecting, but it’s better than Girl. They head to Professor Wikhamby’s lecture hall where a violin competition is about to begin.

Throughout this part of the story we see various unexplained things happen to Boone. He has periodic visions of a boy in 1790 named Niccolo, the most recent of which included Sapphire in a supporting role. He receives a magical comb from a language-blending homeless woman which, I mean we’ve all been there. There’s a large cat that is clearly more than it seems. There are flocks of crows everywhere that only Boone can see. All of this mysterious stuff serves as a subtle literary technique called foreshadowing.

“Then you crash into me, and everything goes from rosy rainbows and merry munchkins to a piano and a dead body falling on me wicked witch style.”

Boone and Sapphire hide in a dark office building from the thugs pursuing them, and Boone fights to keep “the beast” at bay. We are told, in the most matter of fact way I can imagine delivering such information, that Boone is possessed by a wendigo, and that according to an Ojibwe shaman it will come out whenever he is in dark places. It probably sounds like I’m being glib and just talking about the parts that sound silly out of context, but did I even mention the severed hand in the copier machine? Or the water fountain that tastes like Doritos because the building is haunted? No, I did not. You’re welcome.

They finally reach Wikhamby, and Sapphire changes for the competition. Surprise! She’s a violin virtuoso. She comes out in a red dress, and our hero, who has apparently learned everything he knows about human society from Tex Avery cartoons, starts slobbering onto his own chin and making A-OO-GA noises. They sit through the professor’s lecture as he dismisses various rumors about Paganini and the Devil, in a subtle literary technique known as foreshadowing. Sapphire wins the competition by continuing to play after her instrument disintegrates, after the previous three rubes thought that a violin falling apart between your fingers was a legitimate reason to stop playing.

Now we finally get to the part where the wise old professor metes out a little exposition to get the first act really moving. It turns out, there are three pieces of music by Paganini that, if brought together and played in one location under the light of a full moon, will summon demonic magic. Nobody knows exactly what form this magic will take, but apparently NYU has decided that the perfect time to do this is at a charity gala in the park. That doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do, but neither does taking on a hundred thousand dollars of student debt, so clearly the people at NYU know something I don’t. These pieces of music are what everyone is after, including the armed men from earlier. Now it’s up to Boone and Sapphire to secure the three pieces of the Trifor- I mean, the three pieces of Paganini music, before the bad guys find them. Luckily, among Boone’s many skills is the innate ability to play any piece of music after hearing it once, which is told to the reader at just this stage of the plot as a subtle literary technique called foreshadowing.

In case you haven’t noticed in my rambling attempts to recount the plot, our hero is everything at once. He’s a wise-cracker who steals bread rolls from a buffet cart while pretending to listen to exposition. He can throw a bowl and deflect a bullet with it. Also, he speaks French; he’s possessed; he has advanced synesthesia. All of these traits are presented to the reader with a knowing wink, as if to say “Gosh, isn’t that an odd detail to mention here, in the nice cozy first act?” This man is Chekhov’s Museum of Military History. The Harry Potter epilogue couldn’t wrap up this many loose ends.

Usually I assume that these sorts of kitchen sink Marty Stus are author insertions, and given his bio on Amazon, it does seem that Zarek has a lot to say about his own life. Unlike the scuttling rat-people who make up most of the English teachers in Asia, he made something of himself and joined the FBI to fight pirates and make sweet love to canals. I don’t think I would enjoy reading his autobiography, but I do feel like I’m getting a delightful sneak preview of its tone and style in The Devil Pulls the Strings.

Is it worth sticking around to find out how crows and synesthesia team up to save the day? The fast pace of The Devil Pulls the Strings kept me from ever getting bored, and while the plot makes Boone sound obnoxious, the way he’s written is actually more charming than irritating. He feels like any of the Missouri Ren Fair musician jouster wendigos you’ve met in real life. The supporting cast is a bunch of sock puppets, but they get the job done. Overall it’s a perfectly fun little adventure story, and it’s literally a dollar on Kindle.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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