Friday, 24 August 2012

Book Review | The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

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Bobby Dollar isn't your average angel.

Sure, he takes the occasional trip to Heaven, but his job as an advocate - arguing the fate of the recently deceased - keeps him pretty busy on Earth, and he's more than happy to spend the rest of his time propping up the bar with his fellow immortals.

Until the day a soul goes missing, presumed stolen by the other side.

A new chapter in the war between heaven and hell is about to open. And Bobby is right in the middle of it, with only a desirable but deadly demon to aid him.

"This is not a will, but it is a last testament of sorts. [...] What I am about to relate will be unbelievable to many, if not most who hear of it. However, I can assure whoever is reading this that there is nothing wrong with my mind and that I have had proofs that have more than satisfied me of everything I set out here.

"Here is what I now know, which I have seen proved beyond the possibility of debate. There is life after death. The soul does exist without the body. And although most of the narrow, interfering rules of the world's organised religions are just as wrong as I always thought they were, when it comes to the basic facts I must admit that they were right and my fellow doubters and I were wrong. There is a Heaven and there is a Hell." (pp.284-5)
And over the course of genre fiction fixture Tad William's new novel, the first in a series of three, Earthbound angel Bobby Dollar will come into conflict with the forces of both. If he lives to tell the tale, his story is sure to be thrilling... but let's not count our chickens before the fun's even begun.

As what's known in the parlance as an advocate, Bobby's job, mandated from on high, is essentially to defend the dead, for every saint and every sinner shall have his or her judgement day. And on that day, representatives of both heaven and hell will come together, the better to squabble, like lawyers, over the souls of the dearly departed.

Once upon a time, however - for so this fast-paced urban fantasy fable goes - our angelic advocate and his eternal adversary arrive at the scene of an apparent suicide, only to find a startling absence where the late Edward Walker's soul should be. In the many millennia heaven and hell have warred with one another, this is an unheard-of complication, and the resulting shockwaves carry far above, and deep below.

That could be that, but as the blurb boasts, dear Dollar isn't your average angel, so when an insidious scent assails him during his debriefing - in fact something about this whole business smells rotten to Bobby - he goes to ground, puts the moves on an alluring demon queen, and wages a lone campaign against unknown forces, all on an instinct. You know... as you do.

So different is this from his usual epic fantasy fare that I dare say The Dirty Streets of Heaven is hardly recognisable as the work of Tad Williams, though it is not, strictly speaking, the author's first foray into urban fantasy. Published immediately before the four-volume Shadowmarch saga, The War of the Flowers was about one man's mid-life crisis by way of few good fairies and the creatures conspiring against them. In a certain sense, it was like The Never-Ending Story for a new generation — and if it isn't much remembered these seven years on, that's only because The War of the Flowers was then and continues criminally overlooked. It's a fantastic standalone, and if you haven't, you really should read it.

Of course, the more relevant question is whether you should take to The Dirty Streets of Heaven, but it bears repeating that Williams has been here before, or at least somewhere near. This time, however, he means business: almost everything of import occurs in the real world rather than the far-flung fairyland of The War of the Flowers. Indeed, Williams seems surprisingly disinterested in building another imagined kingdom, brick by individual brick.

Bobby certainly visits the titular city on a couple of occasions over the course of The Dirty Streets of Heaven, but both here and at his home away from home - which is to say a pub in the Port of San Judas, southwest of San Francisco - he dismisses almost every opportunity to talk about Heaven or Hell beyond the broad strokes. If it's not "none of your business" or "a story for some other time," it's "not exactly clear" or "hard to explain," and this does begin to frustrate. To properly appreciate The Dirty Streets of Heaven, we must imagine as much about Bobby Dollar's world, if not more, than we are ever informed of.

In terms of character, too, there's something slim about Williams' new novel. Bobby Dollar is a prototypical private eye: a noirish detective type with all the baggage such anti-heroes carry. He won't take a telling, his investigation becomes an obsession, his behaviour is otherwise rarely rational... then he falls head over heels for a femme fatale. And the Countess of Cold Hands isn't even "a woman. Maybe once upon a time, but not for a while. She's part of the ruling class of Hell — a demon, sworn to destruction and the perversion of everything good, and if she's helping you, it's because it suits her. Don't trust a single thing she says or does." (pp.225-6)

That said, a little self-awareness along these lines goes a long way, and eventually Williams' simplistic characterisation gives way to greater depth, if not complexity, as we progress down The Dirty Streets of Heaven. In the interim, Williams moves the conspiracy-driven plot along at a very reasonable rate, punctuating its conversational narration with a wealth of witty interplay between Bobby and his not entirely angelic associates. The action is terrific too, and what with all the monsters and men on our protagonist's path, there's certainly no shortage of that.

At the end of the day, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a little on the thin side, both figuratively and literally, but for as long as it lasts, it's fine fun. If you've ever read a John Connolly novel, or the Sandman Slim series, you're apt to find it slightly overfamiliar, yet even then the similarities are initial and more importantly superficial. Once Williams finds his feet, and by the end he has, The Dirty Streets of Heaven stands as compelling as any of its many contemporaries, such that its slated sequels - Happy Hour in Hell and Sleeping Late on Judgement Day - will be required reading for this critic.


The Dirty Streets of Heaven
by Tad Williams

UK Publication: September 2012, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: September 2012, DAW

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition 

Recommended and Related Reading

1 comment:

  1. Fortunately, I still have the last book of the Shadowmarch saga to tide me over while Tad lets this genre side-step play out. I've had The War of the Flowers cued up for a read for a while now, so I'm not opposed to some urban fantasy, but this new series just doesn't grab my attention at all.