Bryan Smith channels his inner 19-year-old party girl in his latest urban fantasy novel, Kayla and the Devil. This modern Faustian tale transforms Nashville, Tennessee into a world where the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, is just a phone call away and Jack the Ripper hangs out in your local movie theater. Smith has flirted with fantasy before. House of Blood, and its sequel Queen of Blood, both have strong supernatural elements. Just earlier this year Smith offered up a frightening apocalypse tale, Darkened, which is also more fantasy than horror, so urban fantasy is a natural transition. Still, in terms of style, Smith proves he can step out of his comfort zone without sacrificing his own personal charm.
Kayla is a young, beautiful, and privileged college coed with an ugly problem. Despite her exceptional physical qualities no one wants to have anything to do with her. In fact, those that don’t outright ignore her are completely disgusted by her. Even the nerd who was once obsessed with Kayla acts like she’s got the plague. When she meets a super-hunk in the park, she thinks her luck has made a turn for the better, but Kayla couldn’t be more wrong. This handsome man is the Devil himself and he’s here to make her a deal she can’t refuse. You see, Kayla was kind of a bully in high school. Go figure, right? Well, she was nasty enough that someone, with the Devil’s help, put a shunning spell on her. Unless Kayla performs a despicable act at the Devil’s behest, she will endure a life of sexless, attention-deprived solitude. Even the bums on the outermost fringes of society mock her. So Kayla has to decide if she’s got what it takes to do the Devil’s bidding and end the spell or live as a pariah of pariahs for the rest of her days.
Kayla is not a likable character. She’s conceited, vulgar, and often downright cruel. She’s also in that annoying in-between stage of adolescence and adulthood, when you think you know it all and the world revolves around you. In the initial set-up, I worried I might not be able to tolerate her for the length of the story, but Smith knows how to spin a good yarn. Once he’s engaged you in the plot, he sneakily charms you with Kayla’s antics. It’s hard to say where I took the turn from passive observer to Kayla devotee, but at some point there was no denying, I was her loyal sidekick. Hell, I even grew to admire her I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude and feisty disposition. Kayla’s the type of bad bitch who won’t hesitate to tell an angel “get out of my way or I’ll kick in your heavenly balls.”
An important detail that makes Kayla’s character successful is her voice is consistent, so the reader is never taken out of the story. A college acquaintance uses the phrase “as if” which I find a little outdated, but other than that misstep, the language is believable. Kayla’s dialogue is so natural, I imagined Smith creeping around the Vanderbilt University campus, the setting of this tale, eavesdropping on the female student body for inspiration! I certainly hope that’s not the case, because I’m pretty sure you can get arrested for that.
Kayla’s not the only entertainment in this story. To keep her on task, the Devil sends two legendary baddies, Jack the Ripper and the Countess Elizabeth Bathory. While good ole Jack is on site to monitor her progress, when he isn’t indulging his unsavory desires, Ms. Bathory is there to provide guidance for young Kayla.
Despite the violent history of the Ripper and the Blood Countess, you won’t find their taste for blood explored in graphic detail here. Instead, Smith has toned down the gore for this story. Even though Kayla and the Devil is stripped of the viciousness typical of a Smith novel, it’s not a glaring omission. You won’t be aching for bloodletting because you’ll be too caught up in the story to notice. Smith builds momentum quickly and keeps the pace consistent. Once the plot kicks into high gear you’ve already committed yourself for the ride.
Kayla and the Devil is a light-hearted and fun read with a good sense of humor, but I was especially excited about the ending. You may think you got the plot figured out, but a few twists bring a surprising conclusion. Too often an ending can’t live up to the expectation born of a great story, but Smith manages to pull one last trick out of his hat for the closer. If you’re missing Kayla like I do, don’t worry, she’ll be back because Smith is turning this into a series. Who knows what misadventures he has in store for our potty-mouthed protagonist. Well, I have an idea, but I’m not gonna tell ya’. You never know, maybe someday we’ll get to see Kayla and Meli Destroy Frankenstein! Or Kayla and Meli versus Planet of the Apes. OK, probably not, but I’ll be along for the ride anyway!