Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm

(2012-02-18)

Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm

The Collector, Book One

Published by Angry Robot Books, March 2012 (Review Copy received)

416 pages

ISBN: 978-0857662170

Review by Mark Yon

Sam Thornton is a Collector: one of the Damned, eternally cursed to collect souls, usually by inhabiting recently-dead bodies and then touching the victim in question.

He’s been doing it for a while and has that world-weariness of someone who has been undertaking work they dislike for a long time.

The latest job seems straightforward: teenage Kate MacNeil was found by the police covered in blood and cutting her mother’s throat, after seemingly having repeatedly stabbed and killed her mother, father and younger brother.  After being given the job of collecting her soul, Sam claims the body of a recently deceased corpse from the Belleview hospital morgue and goes to do the deed.

However, things go wrong: Sam finds he can’t take the soul and ends up running away with the unconscious Kate whilst he works out what happened.

Even weirder, Kate has no recollection of what happened herself.

As discoveries are made, and it seems that Kate might be innocent, it’s clear that there are bigger issues at stake. The taking of an innocent soul could mean ‘some serious End of Days shit’. No Collector has ever refused to take a Soul before, because of the apocalyptic consequences that could occur.

As a result, Sam and Kate end up on the run from others who want the job completing, as it seems that a War is starting between the Collectors and the Angels which could lead to the End-Days. But who is manipulating events, and why?

It would be easy to summarise the book as ‘detective thriller meets the supernatural’ but it is a pretty glib summary. There’s more going on here than you might think.  Sam is an interesting character himself in that he’s not particularly pleasant, at least to begin with, in a manner that’s rather more Charlie Houston’s Joe Pitt than Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. Sam holds grudges and isn’t going to let this one go.

As the book progresses, though, we see that perhaps this is just a front and that there are reasons for his nature. We discover how he became a Collector in 1944. By the end we realise that he has ethical values and is prepared to stand up for what he perceives as ‘right’, even though this may put him at odds with some seriously nasty things. This includes Bishop, the Collector who acquired Sam’s soul in the first place.

This is a great book with the clipped style of a first person Hammett/Chandler detective film-noir, pared down to the basics:

“Just because you’re thinking about stabbing somebody doesn’t mean you have to be a dick about it.” (page 40)

The book starts fast and keeps the pace up throughout. We go from the original incident to wider issues as it seems the episode is being used to escalate a War between the Angels and the Collectors. We meet the commanders of each side who are unwilling to believe Sam’s opinion. There’s a lot of running and hiding with Sam and Kate finding some unexpected allies, as well as meeting formidable foes. There’s a lot of collateral damage in the city, with police cars damaged, explosions at a hospital, an underground train wrecked, and a helicopter crash along the way as the police try to catch Sam and Kate and the Angels and the Collectors try to find them. The ending’s a big showdown, with a big revelation that connects Sam in ways previously unconsidered, and with a nod to events on a larger playing field that will no doubt be covered in later books.

Comparisons between this and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden are perhaps inevitable. Whilst there are basic similarities here, this is a much darker world. In Dead Harvest there is none of the humour Jim uses in Dresden to counterbalance the dark deeds. Consequently, Dead Harvest is quite bleak, but understandably so for one involving a member of the Damned.  The interesting thing is that, unlike Dresden, where the reader knows that Harry will usually win out, the future for much of Dead Harvest is less clear for Sam.

Nor are the motives of each of the characters in Dead Harvest totally clear. Throughout much of the book there is a possibility that Sam may have got it wrong and that Kate is not as innocent as he thinks, and as a reader we have a sense of doubt until the end of the book.

Comparing again with Dresden, there are things that Sam does as a Collector that Harry would never even consider. Though Sam clearly hates himself for it, there are reasons. Where such actions would give Harry recurring issues that he would mull over continuously, here they are accepted as just part of Sam’s normal routine. As one of the Damned, Sam realises that what he does is wrong and yet he also believes he has little choice.  

So similar, yet different.  In a crowded world of Urban Fantasy, it’s difficult to make an impression amongst the many, many tales out there. However, as far as urban fantasy goes, this is one of the most assured debuts I’ve read since first reading Jim Butcher’s first Dresden.  

The tale is capped by a great retro cover reminiscent of old-school Penguin Book covers of the 1960’s and 70’s, too!

Its sequel, THE WRONG GOODBYE, follows in November. Can’t wait. Recommended.

Mark Yon, January 2012

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