Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams

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“If I were writing a book of advice for young angels, I would probably start it out with ‘Never, ever, ever go to Hell.’”

Happy Hour In Hell is Tad Williams’ second novel in his Bobby Dollar series. For those unfamiliar with Bobby Dollar, or the first book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, the Urban Fantasy series is about Doloriel, a heavenly advocate (he’s a defense lawyer for souls upon their death), but who goes by Bobby Dollar while on Earth, which is most of the time. After the death of a demon with whom Bobby was acquainted, if not particularly liked, Bobby is thrown into a conspiracy with the potential to destroy the “Heaven vs. Hell” order and possibly even the entire world.

Happy Hour in Hell continues Bobby’s story, as he attempts to infiltrate Hell for reasons that would be slightly too spoiler-y for anyone not familiar with the series. Suffice it to say that it is something he wants very very badly, and is willing to go through much to get it.

Tad Williams is a highly acclaimed author, and having accomplished much in the other two main areas of Speculative Fiction (Fantasy and SF), turned his sights to Urban Fantasy. His writing is understandably very good, and he paints a beautifully horrifying picture of even such a washed-out topic as Hell.  Unfortunately, the first-person narration can be very jarring, as Williams seems to think Dollar’s various extended similes are far more humorous than they really are. Sometimes they actually are mildly entertaining, but I wish that Williams had removed all the plainly dumb ones, and focused on making the good ones really good. It’s always a problem when a reader thinks he can spot the author’s thought process while writing, and that’s exactly what happened here.

Bobby, despite his overconfidence in his humor, is actually quite a good character. Cynical and sarcastic, but with a sweet and gentle side. I find that I root for him, and for an angel, he really is darker than you’d expect. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is considerably weaker, two-dimensional and uncompelling almost to a person. Sam and Clarence are boring, clichéd “friend” characters, though different in the way they do it. Sam is the wisecracking, confident friend who’s known Bobby for years, while Clarence is the newbie, lacking Bobby’s full trust but still springing up with helpful interventions from time to time. Neither have any truly defined personality traits, but luckily both play minor roles in this book. Caz, Bobby’s love interest, frustrated me beyond belief. I didn’t care about her. I didn’t care about what happened to her. And I simply could not comprehend what on Earth it was that made Bobby so completely obsessed with her. And to round out the supporting cast, we have Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell and Horseman of the Apocalypse. Not a particularly creative villain, but I happen to enjoy the cliché he was created from (the cultured villain), so I was willing to overlook that. Most of the other characters are minor denizens of hell—no, the book is not particularly large in scale, why? —and these are either completely one-dimensionally evil (it is hell, though), or very much “good guys”. Why are so many of the people of hell nice? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Mr. Williams.

However, if the characters are a bit lackluster, than the plot is a bit brilliant. A perfectly crafted pacing keeps you on your toes, as you find yourself sucked into Williams’ world. The Hell that exists in this book is twisted and dark; everything that Hell should be. It is very Dante-like in terms of its vertical structure, and the further down you go, the more horrible things get. Every place Bobby visits in hell is meticulously crafted, even down to the local wildlife (which is also horribly creepy). It is a beautifully crafted world, and even if I wouldn’t want to live there, I can certainly admire the craftsmanship that went into its creation.

So what we have here is a fun, easy Urban Fantasy romp. It’s not a complicated book or hard book to read. It has a good, fast pace and an entertaining main character. It is set in a chilling, wonderfully atmospheric setting, and is a real page-turner. It is sorely lacking in the supporting cast of characters, and a constant insistence on rarely funny humor gets tiresome quickly, but if you are looking for a fun, easy read, then this book would be a good choice.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

Note: A digital copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

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Note: I have tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but have not been 100% successful. If you have not read Mark Lawrence’s “The Broken Empire” Trilogy, then read forward at your own risk.

“Dark times call for dark choices. Choose me.”

This single quote provides perhaps the best possible summary of the book I can give. I will, however, endeavor to add a little detail to this review, as well as a brief background on the series for those unfamiliar with it.

In 2011 Mark Lawrence released his debut novel Prince of Thorns, thereby propelling himself into the upper echelons of fantasy authors. Readers are all over the world were entranced by his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, his not-so-merry adventures, and even less merry band of adventurers. We forgive him his many flaws, as his charisma and dark humor shine through beautifully in the first person narration. The book is brutal and uncompromising, full of grittiness and harsh reality. Jorg’s ambition and cruelty form a picture of a fascinatingly three-dimensional character, one who a reader would admire and support, even if they do not necessarily like him.

2012 saw the release of King of Thorns, which I consider one of my favorite books of all time. In addition to the classic “villain” character that Jorg would be if the book were told from any other perspective, Lawrence introduces a classic “hero” character, with whom Jorg clashes over several issues. The reader (as well as Jorg himself) must decide who to root for in this conflict. And no one chooses the good guy. It is a masterful piece of writing, truly exemplary.

And now 2013 has come, and with it, Emperor of Thorns, last in the best debut in recent memory. Though I did not find it quite as good as the other two in the series, it is still a worthy conclusion to the acclaimed Broken Empire Trilogy.

The story is told in three ways. The first two are familiar—The first being Jorg in the present, as he travels to and reaches Congression, an event occurring every four years, where an emperor would be picked if the squabbling lords could ever agree on anything. The second is Jorg five years ago, as he travels around the lands he one day hopes to rule. The third, and most risky on Lawrence’s part, is from the POV of the necromancer, Chella. Though I thought her perspective dragged a bit in the beginning, I found it to be, in general, a good addition to the story.

As always, Lawrence’s writing is masterful. The only reason Jorg is such a compelling character is because of the sheer brilliance of the writing. Lawrence develops all the charisma and humor (I rarely laugh out loud while reading, but to make me do it multiple times in such a dark book is quite an achievement), and I feel almost in awe of the ability to evoke such powerful responses from his readers.

In general, the rest of the supporting cast is either hit-or-miss. I liked Katherine (Jorg’s love interest, although she’s really much more than that) in the first book, but not so much in either of the other two. Miana (Jorg’s wife and queen) is entertaining and smart, but she never really develops past bit-part player. I have always loved Sir Makin, and he is no different in this book. A grounding influence on his brooding lord, his humor and charm is far lighter than Jorg’s and he provides a much-needed lightening of the atmosphere. Jorg’s group of travelers, Rike, Kent, and Gorgoth are all two-dimensional, but they serve a purpose, the same as Kai Summerson, who has a far different impact on proceedings. Chella has been a major player since the first book, and even with the addition of her own POV, I never really developed any strong feelings for or against her inclusion. She was just there. And then, of course, there’s Jorg’s adversary, “The Dead King”. The subject of one of the least surprising plot twists I’ve read in a while (it is hinted at so much I’m surprised Lawrence doesn’t just come out and say it), but even so I never found him a particularly compelling villain. I vastly preferred the villains of the first two books (Olidan and Orrin), who I found to be far superior characters.

The place where I thought the book ran into the most trouble was the worldbuilding. Where previously it was only hinted at, this book reveals the true sci-fi nature of the trilogy, and, unfortunately, it fell very flat. A lot of the hocus-pocus technological explanations for things fell very short, and rarely did they make any sense. I do like the semi-Europe that Lawrence has set his world in, and the African lands that Jorg spends some flashback time in, but that was about it for setting. This series has never really been about location, anyway.

The other main flaws of the book were in the conclusion. I found the motivation of the Dead King to be entirely unrealistic and unlikely, especially considering everything we’d heard about him in the previous two books. I also found the resolution to be very weak, far far too easy for such a complex problem. I won’t go into any more detail than that, but those who have read the book will understand what I’m talking about.

Overall, the book was very good. It did not quite live up to the hugely high standards set by the first two books, but still absolutely worth a read. Jorg remains one of my favorite characters, and the second plot twist at the end (this one entirely unexpected, and actually rather genius) served to end the series in a rather satisfying way, and one wholly in keeping with the theme of the rest of the series. If nothing else, this book and series serve as a warning to the rest of the fantasy community: Mark Lawrence is a fantastic author, and he is (I’m fairly sure of this) going to be the next “big” fantasy author.

Final Rating 7.5/10