It is a truth universally acknowledged that the second book of a trilogy is always the weakest... but not this time. "Crushed" takes all the things that were good about "Cracked", amplifies them and then adds a depth of thought that grabbed hold of my brain while the rest of the story twisted my emotions.
The plot, full of twists and surprises and peppered with violence, unfurls at a pace designed to maximise the tension without rushing thoughtlessly from one fight to another. Describing the plot would spoil the enjoyment of the book, so I'll confine myself to saying that Meda is at risk from both sides in the newly-started all-out-war between Demons and Crusaders, with only her friends standing between her and destruction. All she has to do now is figure out who her friends are.
Although the plot is strong, I see it mostly as a vehicle for working through the big themes of this book: the futility of trying to be someone you're not, the different definitions of being good, the fundamental evil of the removal of choice, the appeal of stolen fun, the price of control, the nature of friendship and, right at the centre of all this, what it means to be a monster.
The book starts fairly gently, lulling me into thinking that I'm in some kind of Hogwarts for Crusaders High School drama where poor misunderstood Meda is defended by her friends and treated unfairly by adults and abused by the mean kids.
To be fair, that's more or less how Meda sees things at the beginning, She get's frustrated by Jo's constant appeals to her, half-demon that she is, to be good. She wants to be good, in theory anyway but tells herself that she can't manage it to Jo's satisfaction because:
"... Jo’s and my definitions of “good” are about as similar as an Eskimo’s and a Jamaican’s definitions of “cold.”
The idea of having to define for yourself the good that you are capable of rather than accepting the good that others expect from you drives much of the plot of this story.
Of course, Meda also fails to be good because she doesn't want to be. She lets herself be distracted by the charming Armand, the half-demon she met in "Cracked". He offers her fun. Forbidden fun. As Meda says:
"Fun is so much better when it' stolen"
The fun stops when the Crusaders do things to Meda against her will. I found this part as fascinating as it was unpleasant. Meda can't stop what's happening but she still resists. Resistance isn't just an instinctive reaction, it's a decision. Meda says:
But I want there to be no doubt in their minds that I do not consent. I do not agree. I have no choice, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to make it easy on them.
This is a powerful way of confronting that the removal of consent is always a violation but it also shows the two sides of Meda's character: her outrage at a wrong being done (especially by the good guys and especially to her) and her absolute determination to make her enemies pay.
About a third of the way into the book, just at the point where I was tiring of reading about High School pranks and rivalries, things got serious. Then I realised they had always been serious but Meda has been unable to see what was really going on.
For a while, we get to explore Meda's demon side. I was impressed by this because it doesn't show Meda as a good guy handicapped by her demon heritage, like some angst-ridden sparkly I-didn't-choose-to-be-this-way vampire. Meda IS as much demon as she is Crusader. She's also as little demon as she is Crusader.
When Jo re-enters the story, the rest of the book, apart from the fights and the things that move the story arc along, is about the nature of friendship and what it means to be a monster.
Meda's relationship with Jo is the thing that keeps her linked to the non-demon side of herself. Jo is her best friend. Jo is the only person Meda would willingly risk herself for. Meda understands this but is unable to articulate it to Jo. At one point, Meda demonstrates the nature and depth of their friendship by saying:
"But seriously, what do you say to your best friend when you stand at the gates of the Gates of Hell? Nothing. If it’s your best friend, she already knows."
Armand calls to Meda's demon nature. They fit each other. He lets her be herself. Yet she always holds something back from him because she understands what he is.
At one point, Armand describes himself and by inference, Meda herself by saying:
“I’m a monster, Meda. I’ve never claimed to be good; I’ve never claimed to be anything other than what I am. I’m selfish and evil and greedy, I want many, many things, most of which I shouldn’t have.”
By the end of the book, after tears and blood have flown freely, lives have been lost and intrigues have played out, Meda has grown up a great deal. When she reflects on her relationship with Armand, she doesn't go for easy answers, She says:
"Our friendship was real, as real as is possible between two monsters."
She then adds:
"You can love a monster, it can even love you back, but that doesn’t change its nature."
I don't want to give the impression that this book is an ethics essay. It's a fast-paced, emotionally taxing, urban-fantasy thriller, but what lifts it from the cliché of the eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil, is an honest and thoughtful exploration of what good and evil are and how all of us feel the call of both. We are all potentially monstrous and we all have to decide what kind of good we're able and willing to be.