Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December 2013 Book Review: Happy Hour in Hell


By Tad Williams

~Book Review~

Warning! Spoilers!

BOBBY DOLLAR, a wise-cracking advocate angel, introduced us to his gritty afterlife in Book I: The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Bobby found floating around in blissful bureaucratic Heaven to be dreadfully boring compared to duking it out in the San Judas trenches over souls, courtroom-style. However, he got caught up with a missing soul mystery that attracted too much attention from Heaven and Hell, and he began to wonder just how much of that heavenly bliss was to keep the majority pacified.

Casimira (Caz), the deadly Countless of Cold Hands, was a beautiful demon who helped Bobby investigate the missing soul case, and he might have fallen madly in love with her along the way. Although she was often described as looking “like a young schoolgirl” several times in the first book—(yuck)—she was a strong and interesting character. The last Bobby saw of her was when she was dragged back to Hell by her boss, the cruel Grand Duke Eligor, and now he’s determined to rescue her. Getting in won’t be easy. Getting out will be damn near impossible.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the second book in the series. As urban fantasy books gravitate toward fallen angels, heaven and hell, and the like, there have been a lot of Dante’s Inferno re-vamps or re-conceptions of the afterlife, some done not so well—Hades by Alexandra Adornetto in which it was laughable—some done really well—The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff in which her beautiful writing brought “Pandemonium” to life—or some choosing not to go there completely—Jessica Shirvington’s Violet Eden books, in which it’s hinted that heaven/hell aren’t like anything mortals know. I’ve also heard a lot about Thomas Sniegoski and look forward to reading his work. Dante’s Inferno and John Milton are key influences for my upcoming book, The Tribe of Ishmael, too, so I might…kinda sorta be REALLY interested!

That being said, what I really appreciate about Tad Williams (the well-known author of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series) is the complexity he weaves into Bobby’s world. He doesn’t shy away from philosophical questions, there’s a lot the angels still don’t understand, and the atmospheric mystery keeps you flipping through the pages. The second book, Happy Hour in Hell, drops Bobby straight onto the Neronian Bridge as he sets off to find Caz. The Bridge grows longer, and longer, and Bobby runs out of funny little anecdotes to tell us as he wonders when he’ll actually get to Hell. Welcome to monotony.

This must have been a real difficult book to write. On one hand, the plot is rather straightforward, as Bobby must overcome all sorts of hellish obstacles and monsters on his way to Caz. Hell is organized along an elevator, in which the very bottom is an unspeakable place known only as the Prison of the Damned, and at the top is the lavish upper levels where the Grand Dukes and powerful demons live. The middle is where the majority of the book is spent with the “working-level” demons. I really liked how Bobby couldn’t even enter the lowest levels of Hell, because the pressure just built up too much inside of his head. It reminded me of diving too deep in the ocean.
On the other hand, many of the villainous demon characters Bobby meets in Hell feel one-dimensional or not very engaging, and that slows the plot down. As readers, we often look for those humanizing characteristics that we can relate to in non-human characters. Sure, they can be twisted or messed-up, but as long as we can genuinely relate to them, we’ll follow that character anywhere. Otherwise, a monster…just feels like an imaginary monster. We begin to feel like the threat to the character’s life isn’t real. We begin not to care. Unfortunately, I began to feel that way throughout much of Happy Hour in Hell. Bobby’s allies, as few as they are, weren’t too memorable, and the minor villains came off as kind of cartoonish. 

However, once Eligor and Caz show back up, so does the action. Eligor’s vileness works for me, and Caz, although relegated to a damsel-in-distress type role in this book, plays both sides well. Bobby makes some mistakes, but hey, he’s not an all-powerful angel, he’s just a middle guy who knows how to survive. His witty voice is written extraordinarily well, and he never pities himself for long, despite all of the horror and torture he goes through. I really liked how Williams portrayed Bobby’s latest assassin, Smyler, in this book. He was a cool Gollum-type of character. 

In the end, I did feel an excited rush to see how Bobby would get out in time, and no detail is spared in the world-building of everyone’s favorite pit of suffering. Now the stage has been set for both Heaven and Hell, and as to what game Bobby’s angel superiors are playing promises a fantastic showdown in Book III: Sleeping Late on Judgment Day.

Recommended for fans of: Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson, Supernatural TV show fans
January Book Review: Wildefire by Karsten Knight

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