08 November 2016

Books: The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (2012)

Tad Williams career began in the in the fantasy realm genre, starting with Tailchaser’s Song that segued into his international best selling series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. From there he would give us the science fiction themed multivolume Otherland series, before circling back to fantasy with the Shadowmarch series. He would also give us standalone fantasy novels The War of the Flowers, along with Caliban's Hour and Child of an Ancient City. For the last few years he’s been dabbling in the newest (I guess) subcategory of genre fiction, urban fantasy.

The narrative of these stories is they’re generally set in contemporary times and contain many supernatural elements. However, they can be set in the past and the future, with the one basic trope thread through out them is that they must be primarily set in a city. While, per se, I have no problem with this subcategory of genre fiction, its surge in popularity seems more designed to appeal to fans who don’t like typical sword and sorcery tales (like the ones the author has written before), but still want tales that carry some elements of the genre. By setting them in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or elsewhere, the tales can more “identifiable” with an audience than the land of Mordor in Middle-Earth. Also, by chance, if a Hollywood studio is interested in buying the series, a supernatural tale is an easier sale because it can have a wider, much broader appeal than straight fantasy books. I can see Williams having a better chance of selling these Bobby Dollar books to a premium or basic cable channel, ala True Blood and The Walking Dead, than trying to convince them to spend the money on an epic fantasy that many within Hollywood still consider to be nothing more than a genre with limited demographic appeal –there is a reason it’s taken this long to get Stephen King’s complex and genre jumping Dark Tower novels translated into film, and yet they’re still not doing a straight adaptation.

But I digress…

“Bobby Dollar is an angel, a real one. He knows a lot about sin, and not just in his professional capacity as an advocate for souls caught between Heaven and Hell. Bobby's wrestling with a few deadly sins of his own pride, anger, even lust. But his problems aren't all his fault. Bobby can't entirely trust his heavenly superiors, and he's not too sure about any of his fellow earthbound angels either, especially the new kid that Heaven has dropped into their midst, a trainee angel who asks too many questions. And he sure as hell doesn't trust the achingly gorgeous Countess of Cold Hands, a mysterious she-demon who seems to be the only one willing to tell him the truth. When the souls of the recently departed start disappearing, catching both Heaven and Hell by surprise, things get bad very quickly for Bobby D. "End-of-the-world" bad. "Beast of Revelations" bad. Caught between the angry forces of Hell, the dangerous strategies of his own side, and a monstrous undead avenger that wants to rip his head off and suck out his soul, Bobby's going to need all the friends he can get--in Heaven, on Earth, or anywhere else he can find them.”

Of the few urban fantasy novels I’ve read, I got to say this is not a bad book. Williams does have the knack of creating wonderful characters, and Bobby Dollar is like the Jim Rockford of angels. You like him despite the fact he is also an idiot. The book also plays out like an old 1940s film nior detective novel, and no matter what characters say (in several meta passages); this is a detective book (and I hate the whole first-person narrative conceit he uses here as well –it seems pointless). But there are many flaws with novel as well, and that has much to do with the whole theme of Heaven and Hell –we’ve all seen this done again and again- than anything else. One other aspect of this genre that I find astonishingly reductive is that it’s built on a house of cards. There is no new ground to break here, that they’re all just variation on a theme, which means predictable plotting, with the good guy/gal falling for the bad girl/guy and an old friend betraying the main character. So then I find myself wondering if this is another example of book industries inability to take risks anymore; that sales are more important than if the book is original; they’re entertaining time waster, but that’s about it. And sure, one could say that his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series owes a hell of lot to Lord of the Rings (which it does), but when I read those books between 1988 and 1993 I enjoyed them immensely.

But now I’m worried. I’m worried because Williams is returning to the universe he created in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn with a new trilogy set to start next April. I’m worried that in the 24 years since that last book came out, I’ve “moved on”, matured and read so many other books that I’m bound to be disappointed (the same way I was when Stephen R. Donaldson returned to his Thomas Covenant series some two-decades later). I want to re-read those books, but should I? Plus, in preparation of that new series, Williams is releasing what I’m now calling a 240 page prologue to The Last King of Osten Ard in January. I sense that book will cover the events of the three previous books, plus lay the ground work for the next three. I might just be wasting my time (?)

As for Bobby Dollar? There are two other books in the series, but I’m not that sure I want to continue on at this point. But we’ll see. I never say never.

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