Sanguen Daemonis is the first novel by Anna Zabini. [There is no English translation, afaik.]
Finished on: 2.2.2022
Content Note: the book contains extensive content notes for each chapter, so let me just point out that this is not a happy book and loads of warnings apply
Sivan and Shanna are twins. They are very close, but also very different. While Shanna follows in their parents political footsteps and is about to become head of the Chosen in Vienna, the people possessed by but in control of a demon, Sivan is the black sheep of the family and has enough to do with his mental health than to be particularly ambitious. Right around the same time, both of them meet people they didn’t expect. Sivan meets Nikola, an Untouchable (who can’t be possessed but draw demons in) from Bratislava recruited to Vienna rather against his will. And Shanna meets Nesrin, a Mortal (meaning she can be possessed by a demon, but would succumb to its control) independent journalist. The fates of all four of them become intertwined with the politics of the Chosen and the resistance who grapple for control.
Sanguen Daemonis was a really good read that I devoured in only a few days. While there were a few moments here and there that reminded me of the fact that it is a debut novel, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the world-building is innovative, the characters are awesome and the story is dark, but not hopeless. In short, I really liked it.
After having read Zabini’s short story in Queer*Welten, my expectations for Sanguen Daemonis were quite high, and I’m happy to say that the novel fulfilled them all in all. It may not be quite as polished as the short story (but then, most short stories are more polished simply because they are shorter and easier to polish), but it definitely drew me in and had me hooked pretty quickly.
I do have to admit, though, that I found myself checking dates a lot – the chapters aren’t in chronological order but jump around within a period of five years. Each chapter is labeled with the date it takes place on, and I often referred back to the table of contents to check where the chapter I was reading was in relation to the other chapters. It wouldn’t have been strictly necessary. I probably could have placed it from the narrative alone, but I still wanted to make sure. This checking back and forth made me wonder whether the story couldn’t have been told just as well in linear form, but ultimately, it was no big deal.
There were a couple of moments where the prose didn’t flow all that easily. Sometimes I felt like Zabini must read a lot of English books as there was the odd translation of English phrases into German here and there (as I type this in English, I know, I’m the one to speak). And smiles did a lot of work on the lips they were placed on. But other than that, the writing was really good.
Even better where the world-building and the characters, though. It took me a while to understand the intricacies of the world – what does it mean to be Chosen, Untouchable, Mortal and Possessed? I definitely liked that Zabini didn’t infodump all of this on me at once, but it does mean that sometimes I had to move past a point I didn’t understand completely to get the explanation later. If you don’t mind that (and I don’t, for the most part), you can concentrate on the politics of this world which I found quite interesting, because Zabini leaves it pretty open where your sympathies may lie – with the Chosen or with the resistance? With neither?
With the characters, we get a wonderfully diverse world. Pretty much everyone is queer here in various ways, and none of them are white Austrians without some kind of migration background somewhere. Sivan, as I mentioned, is mentally ill. Danica is disabled. All these things are very well handled, without resorting to tropes (I think) and with a lot of sensitivity.
The ending may be a tad abrupt and some things remained unresolved for me (I wondered whether I can forgive as easily as the ending seems to want me to), but it is satisfying – though it also leaves room for a sequel. Should one be planned, I’d be more than happy to read it.