Hardcover, September 2012
9780756407681, 400 pages
Review copy courtesy of the publisher, DAW
Let me get this out of the way, Tad Williams is one of my favorite speculative fiction writers. Ever since I followed Simon Mooncalf through the world of Osten Ard, I’ve been a devoted reader of Mr. Williams’s work. Most of his fiction has been epic and grandscale, large stories in large books. So, Tad switches things up a bit going for the more streamlined noir-influenced Urban Fantasy (and I’m referencing the pre-Anita Blake version of the label) with The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which is the first of the Bobby Dollar series. Tad even hinted at this series in an interview he conducted with Mark and I at SFFWorld a couple of years ago so you could say I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a couple of years.
Dolorious, a.k.a. Bobby Dollar, is our first person narrator and one of many ‘Advocate’ angels who argue against the denizens of Hell for recently deceased souls. As an advocate, Bobby often appears just as people die and similar to the role a lawyer plays, he must argue for the soul’s place in Heaven. What becomes evident is how not all souls who may have seemed virtuous get immediate entrance to the pearly gates. Hell’s advocates are vicious and much like prosecutors whereas the angelic Advocates seem to be more of the defense. Shortly into the meat of the novel, a soul whose owner committed suicide vanishes as Bobby and his antagonists from Hell arrive to argue for the man’s soul. This has never happened before and sets in motion what becomes a layered and entertaining plot.
Bobby is surrounded by a colorful group of characters, his best friend Sam, newcomer Haraheliel Ely who (which I suspect is a nod to Harlan Ellison) who receives the nickname Clarence due to his disposition on the side of the angels, while the demon Casimira (Caz),the Countess of Cold Hands, as well as a plethora of monstrous demons and a few Dukes of Hell round out the side of Hell. Adding to the tension is the relative peace, or rather cold war atmosphere, between the forces of heaven and hell as their war is a thing of the long past and squabbles and ‘courtroom’ battles are the place where these two factions come into conflict. The disappearance of the souls; however, hints at other powers at play beside Heaven and Hell and a potential end to the relative peace.
I’ve long been a fan of the of biblical themes receiving the “gritty” treatment, making Heaven and Hell much deeper than their biblical indications would lead one to believe. After all, my senior thesis in college was on such a topic. In that essay, I recall mentioning the comic book Spawn which depicted the conflict between heaven and hell in a similar light as does Tad Williams with an emerging third faction. In The Dirty Streets of Heaven, this conflict between Heaven and Hell is more of an underneath the surface thing and informs the characters and setting more so than actually being a primary plot point. In one interview with Tad Williams, the great writer Michael Moorcock came up as an influence, specifically the similarities between Moorcock’s depiction of the eternal conflict between Chaos and Order. I’d also point to Steven Brust’s To Reign in Hell which also grittifies the conflict between Heaven and Hell and even the great Tim Burton film Beetlejuice in how the afterlife is a bureaucratic extension of the real world dictated by unseen higher ups down to street walking ‘grunts’ and pencil-pushing desk jockeys.
Influences and similarities to other works of fiction I’ve enjoyed aside, why does The Dirty Streets of Heaven work so well for me? Well, it is written by Tad Williams, but that’s the simple answer. The long-form answer is multifold. I like the character of Bobby a great deal and as the narrator of his story, it is all the easier to empathize with him. He isn’t one to follow his orders blindly; he questions his authority as well as the state of affairs between Heaven and Hell. Bobby’s going-against-the-grain couldn’t be clearer in his attraction to the Countess of Cold Hands Casmira, the typical “femme fatale he shouldn’t fall for but does.” Of course being a denizen of hell casts entirely more plausibility on the whole femme fatale thing. Casmira comes across as a sexy Harley Quinn (of Batman fame) / Alice of Wonderland fame with the icy (duh) exterior Bobby wishes to crack. So, while Bobby simultaneously searches for the culprit behind the stolen souls, because (a) it is his job and (b) his guilt is implied as a witness to the missing soul, he ‘chases’ after Casmira since she might be involved in the situation and he just can’t stop thinking about her.
What is intrigues me a great deal the mythology/back-story that informs the ‘current time’ of the novel. The forces of Heaven and the representatives of Hell have the Milton-esque and biblical guts but have more of a modern shell. Angels can open a Zipper between Outside and Inside, flipping between the real world of the living and the other world of the spiritual. The dichotomy between the two isn’t fully explored, rather, it is hinted with enough detail that I really want to learn more about it. The ‘stalemate’ between Heaven and Hell is spoken of as a thing of the long-ago past with even Bobby and Sam as participants on the front-lines, though those hints again provide mere fodder for speculation in this installment of the Bobby Dollar series. Another nibble of potential interest is how Angels have no knowledge of their lives before they became angels, this I suspect could play a much larger role as the series progresses.
Cracking the mystery behind the missing souls is both predictable and surprising. Predictable in that some of the game pieces could be deduced, but their actual function and reasoning a bit of a curve-ball. That middling predictability is often inherit in mystery fiction, so I’d barely consider it a problem.
As I initially noted, this is an Urban Fantasy more in the tradition of how the label was originally utilized, informed by mystery placing the supernatural/fantastical in everyday setting. Readers who enjoy Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files will most likely be as entertained as I was.
If it hasn’t become clear by this point in my review, I enjoyed The Dirty Streets of Heaven a great deal and I’m even more excited to see where Tad Williams takes Bobby Dollar in the next two installments.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford