By K.E. Semmel
The fifth volume of Kenneth B. Andersen’s terrific middle-grade series The Great Devil War will be published next month in his native Denmark. Although not yet forty, Andersen has written more than thirty books in a variety of middle grade and YA genres ranging from fantasy to science fiction, and he’s one of Denmark’s bestselling authors. His Antboy books have been made into successful films, the first of which you can watch on Netflix.
The planned six-book Great Devil War series follows the lives and deaths of 13-year-old Philip Engel, an “angelic” boy who dies in book one, The Devil’s Apprentice, when he’s pushed in front of a car by the school bully, Sam, and then descends to Hell where he mistakenly becomes Lucifer’s successor. The devil, you see, is dying from some mysterious illness, and he needs someone to take over the “business” (we soon learn that Sam was the true heir of the devil’s throne).
When Philip and his new friend Satina stumble upon a conspiracy against the dark throne, the race is on to save Lucifer before it’s too late for him—and for Philip. What follows is an exciting page-turner of an adventure tale that reads much like a crime novel for young adults, with compelling characters facing real dilemmas. Central to the plot is Lucifer’s quest to turn a good boy evil. That’s a fun dilemma.
I had the good fortune of translating volume one of the series. Although it has yet to find an English-language publisher, I am optimistic that it will. What draws me to the novel is the way it smartly integrates classic works of Western literature. Here you’ll find references to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and The Divine Comedy subtly woven into the narrative. Imagine Harry Potter or Percy Jackson with elements of The Divine Comedy, The Golden Compass, and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. There’s quite a rich cast of characters too: In addition to Lucifer, Philip encounters—among others—God, Pontius Pilate, and David and Goliath.
You can imagine what life in Hell might be like for a nice boy, and part of The Devil’s Apprentice’s charm is found in Philip’s awkward attempts to acclimate himself to “life” in Hell. Along the way he learns a few things about subjects important to the middle grade years: love, hatred, friendship, revenge, envy, jealousy. The setting may be hell, but the territory is a familiar one.
Since the publication of volume 1 in 2005, The Great Devil War series has sold more than 130,000 copies in Denmark and is a regular on school reading lists. It’s easy to see why. Despite what might seem like dark subject matter, this is a fun story, and Andersen writes with humor and a terrific eye for spinning a good yarn. In writing these books, the former schoolteacher set out to examine evil from a different angle. Thematically, the novels explore some difficult questions in an organic way: Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? What is good and what is evil? And why do good and evil exist?
Where does Andersen fit in the landscape of contemporary Danish middle-grade and YA? Interestingly, if you explore the Danish website litteratursiden’s list of 100 fantastic young adult novels you find that the majority are written in a realistic vein. The subject matter is often dark, tackling difficult (adult) themes.
It’s true that Danish young adult/middle grade writers enjoy a certain level of freedom: no subject is taboo. From modern classics like Klaus Rifbjerg’s 1958 Den kroniske uskyld (published this year by Norvik Press as Terminal Innocence in Paul Larkin’s translation), to books by Bjarne Reuter, Hanne-Vibeke Holst, Steen Langstrup, and, more recently, several of Jesper Wung-Sung’s popular titles, including The Last Execution (translated by Lindy Falk van Rooyen, Atheneum, 2016).
But besides Andersen’s The Great Devil War series, the only other fantasy series found on the list was written by Lene Kaaberbøl, who is probably best known in the United States for her Nina Borg crime novels co-authored with Agnethe Friis and published by Soho Crime. Her YA fantasy series, The Shamer Chronicles, was published by Henry Holt from 2006-2008.
Danish writers produce high-quality YA and middle-grade fiction, and it’d be wonderful to see more of it published on these shores. Widely lauded in Denmark, Kenneth B. Andersen’s The Devil’s Apprentice, Volume 1 of The Great Devil War, would be a great place to start. (And, if you must ask, English-language rights are still available. Contact: Stinne Hjortlund Kristoffersen.)