The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams
Published by Hodder and Stoughton, September 2012 (Review copy received).
ISBN: 978 1 444 73855 1
Review by Mark Yon
For those used to Tad’s more traditional Fantasy (such as Memory, Shadow and Thorn and the Shadowmarch series) this one is different. So different in that, had the name not been on the front, I wouldn’t have said they were the same writer.
This is being widely seen as Tad’s take on Urban Fantasy: you know, moody male with issues, living a tough life, with ‘problems’, usually of the supernatural type.
Not his usual, then: but it is good.
First thoughts are that Bobby Dollar, Tad’s protagonist, fits right into the mould. Fast talking, snarky, yet engaging, the speed of the prose is rather jawdropping.
But what Tad brings that’s new to the party is Bobby’s world, a wonderfully realised background that is teeming with ideas, just dropped in briefly before getting back to the task in hand. It’s the sort of thing Robert A. Heinlein was very good at: Tad here is very, very good.
In summary: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell exist in a continuous battle, although at the moment it’s a Cold War type of co-existence. God exists, as does The Devil. In this existence there is a societal order, from Principalities to guardians, archangels and advocates. Each person when they die has their soul judged by a judge, and there are representatives for either place who argue their case. Bobby (aka Doloriel) is one of these: an advocate angel on the side of Heaven. How he became one, who and where he was ‘before’ isn’t clear: but he does what he does, as best he can.
Bobby’s given the task of keeping an eye on a new Guardian, who’s not typical. Moved from ‘Records – Filing’, Haraheliel (ironically nicknamed ‘Clarence’, which should amuse movie fans of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) seems to be unusual: an angel with moral standards who takes things personally.
When Bobby takes on a case and the soul goes missing before being judged, it drops him into a major crisis. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. When other souls have a similar fate, the problem is clearly much bigger than Bobby, or anyone else, realises.
It doesn’t help that Bobby has the hots for the Countess of Cold Hands, Casimira (Caz), a she-demon from the other side whose interest in him can only really be seen as questionable. He’s also been accused of having a valuable item that belongs to one of the Opposition’s higher order, and is consequently being hunted down by an ancient Sumerian creature set upon him by an Opposition High Lord that can only be described as ‘unstoppable’. Bobby finds himself under suspicion from both sides, whilst himself feeling set-up. He wants to know how and why.
This is light years away from Tad’s medieval-mannerisms of Memory Sorrow and Thorn and Shadowmarch, so much so that, had I not been told, I wouldn’t have said they were the same author. Many critics of Tad’s earlier work, (of which I’m not one, incidentally), talk about their over-complexity and enormous length. In comparison, Dirty Streets is tightly written, fast paced, contemporary, and definitely more adult. The characters smoke and drink, sleep around, curse and complain – much like you and me, except with the added responsibility of doing the Lord’s (or the Opposition’s) work. I’m sort of reminded of Black Sabbath’s album cover to Heaven and Hell here.
My inner critic made me think that this tight focus could leave to a rather flimsy novel. I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t. Tad doesn’t avoid the big issues – How do you get to Heaven? What is heaven like? What happens to atheists when they die? – but he does cleverly side-slip them, by pointing out that he’s given up questioning and just accepts that you can’t know everything, and that often things are rather vaguely remembered, if at all. It’s rather like saying you don’t need a detailed knowledge of anatomy or biology to be human, which is probably how most of us live our lives, anyway.
What works most is Tad’s supreme prose. It is a rapid-fire, non-stop wealth of snarky comments. The text is full of memorable little quirks that are dropped in along the way that could be developed into whole other books, such as Bobby’s background to his relationships with other angels and people. This is the first time I’ve heard a description of a person as ‘hissing and clawing like a methedrined ocelot’, and yet here we have it (on page 2.) It’s funny, it’s accurate, it’s intelligent.
Through this rapid narrative there are intriguing glimpses of Bobby’s world as we deal with his difficulties. Heaven exists, but the blissful people there have no idea of their previous life. There is a strict hierarchy of society, on both sides. The advocates don’t know anything about whom they were ‘before’, and if killed can usually be resurrected in another body, though the process can be painful. Bobby and his best friend Sam served in the army together: known as ‘the Harps’, they are a sort of SAS-type squad who bring the term ‘fighting the good fight’ to another level.
Sometimes such an unremittingly bleak character or background can make a book difficult to like. Whilst there are times where the outlook can be described as bleak, there’s enough humour to keep it going. And it must be said that there is some odd stuff in there, from the gruesomely unpleasant punishments doled out to agents of the Opposition who fail in their work to the cursed informant that Dollar uses who just so happens to take the form of a were-pig from midnight to sunup…. Tad manages to elicit sympathy, horror and humour in such situations, not an easy thing to do.
There are a couple of minor niggles. I can’t say I’m too impressed with the name Bobby Dollar, which just sounds too cheesy. There are a couple of times where Tad seems to be trying too hard, when the drop-ins seem superfluous to the tale at that point, though these are minor. The explicit sex scenes may not be everyone’s cup of tea and are perhaps a little… overheated at times.
Generally though, this is a fast paced, classy piece of work. Despite my issues with the lead guy’s name (Bobby Dollar: ugh!) the book itself is a whirlwind ride, touching on many of the tropes of Urban Fantasy and giving the reader that element of familiarity. However, unlike many that cover similar ground, where the literary mechanisms can be seen clicking the clichés into place, Tad manages to do something I thought almost impossible: write an urban fantasy that is both engaging and at the same time takes the reader somewhere new.
I had my concerns about this one: I needn’t. Impressive stuff from a brilliant author, and easily one of the best urban fantasies I’ve read in a long, long while. As much as I like The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher’s definitely got his work cut out for him to keep up with this one. Dresden, watch out: there’s a new guy in town.
I really hope there’s more to this world. Highly Recommended.
Mark Yon, August 2012