A coachload of teenagers and their escorts arrives at a cabin in the woods in the Scottish highlands for a retreat. Not far away, large vicious demons have escaped from being imprisoned in an underground military base where a portal to, assumedly, Hell has opened, and they smell young nubile flesh for the ravaging. More than mayhem ensues, as the title of Christopher Brookmyre's 13th book, Pandaemonium, suggests.
Brookmyre's novels are largely black comedy, with a variety of characters working within or against the system to battle, capture, foil or turn the tables on the bad guys. Each of his books are fun to read, and, if your only familiarity to Scottish crime is Ian Rankin, a fresh alternative take. His strongest work, for me, was his 10th book, A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil. In it, an investigator has to go back to their memories two decades before and follow their own path through school as well as their fellow schoolmates to solve the murder of an alumnus. Even having not been a Scottish student in the '80s, the book still evoked humour and empathy. While there is vivid action in his books, he is more than capable of adding an extra dimension to the story without deprecating it or rubbing it in.
In Pandaemonium, he uses senior students at a Catholic school in present time, throwing in certain teenage archetypes to play off each other with thematic links to the plot. They include the anoraks, the genius, the bully, the quiet-must-be-autistic one, the Sloanes, the jocks, and the full-on religious kook. The retreat for these specific students is for those who directly witnessed or were otherwise affected by the murder of a classmate. Some students hope to gain closure from their trauma; the rest hope to party and get it on, or at least past first base. Along with them are a Headmaster and two teachers, at least one in extreme doubt of their spirituality. We are introduced to this wide array of characters through events on the coach trip to the cabin, ending in a nice nod to a scene in Severance.
Meanwhile, scientists at the base struggle to keep control as the military brings in a consultant, Cardinal Tullian, who just happens to be a member of the Inquisition. He's called in because the creatures who have emerged from the portal are a. Big. b. Red-skinned c. Have horns d. and Long tails. The cardinal shows that they react in pain to holy water, too. All this becomes moot as the beasts somehow are let to escape, kill most of the soldiers and scientists, and head off to the nearest source of more humans to kill.
Which they will find.
Nothing is as it seems in this book, however, including with several of the teenagers. Those archetypes turn topsy-turvy. Instead of just grist for a gore-mill, I really cared about a lot of the characters. Some have deep secrets, some have the answer to the overall mystery, and others have the capacity for bravery. And lots will die messily: some in mid-coitus, some in mid-sentence during a debate over the reality of heaven and hell, and some in big reveals.
Action, astrophysics, teenage hijinks, religious philosophy, entrails: a nice read by the fire.