The last couple of weeks have been a bit hectic, so I'm a little behind on writing book reviews. Already have three in the pipeline, so this morning I finally sat down to review Tad Williams' soon-to-be-released Happy Hour in Hell. I really enjoyed The Dirty Streets of Heaven, so I was looking forward to some new Bobby Dollar misadventures!
With urban fantasy being the biggest game in town, I always find it interesting when bestselling fantasy authors like Jacqueline Carey and Tad Williams decide to switch genres and try something different. As versatile as Williams' imagination has always been, I knew that the author wouldn't have any problems tackling the urban fantasy sub-genre. Indeed, The Dirty Streets of Heaven was probably Williams' most accessible novel to date. And yet, as entertaining as the book turned out to be, I'm not sure that it was noticed by the wider urban fantasy/paranormal romance readership. For with the Bobby Dollars novels, Williams is now competing against bestselling powerhouses such as Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher. Hence, it will be interesting to see if this second installment will help the author reach new readers as well as existing long-time fans.
Here's the blurb:
I’ve been told to go to Hell more times than I can count. But this time I’m actually going. My name’s Bobby Dollar, sometimes known as Doloriel, and of course, Hell isn’t a great place for someone like me—I’m an angel. They don’t like my kind down there, not even the slightly fallen variety. But they have my girlfriend, who happens to be a beautiful demon named Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands. Why does an angel have a demon girlfriend? Well, certainly not because it helps my career. She’s being held hostage by one of the nastiest, most powerful demons in all of the netherworld—Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell. He already hates me, and he’d like nothing better than to get his hands on me and rip my immortal soul right out of my borrowed but oh-so-mortal body. But wait, it gets better! Not only do I have to sneak into Hell, make my way across thousands of miles of terror and suffering to reach Pandemonium, capital of the fiery depths, but then I have to steal Caz right out from under Eligor’s burning eyes and smuggle her out again, past demon soldiers, hellhounds, and all the murderous creatures imprisoned there for eternity. And even if I somehow manage to escape Hell, I’m also being stalked by an undead psychopath named Smyler who’s been following me for weeks. Oh, and did I mention that he can’t be killed? So if I somehow survive Hell, elude the Grand Duke and all his hideous minions and make it back to the real world, I’ll still be the most hunted soul in Creation. But at least I’ll have Caz. Gotta have something to look forward to, right? So just pour me that damn drink, will you? I’ve got somewhere to go.
I found the worldbuilding of The Dirty Streets of Heaven to be quite intriguing. I liked those few glimpses we were offered of the futuristic and bureaucratic Heaven and I was looking forward to visit Hell in this second volume. What worked well in the first installment was that Williams sort of teased us with brief glimpses of Heaven and its hierarchy, which never failed to pique our curiosity and made us want to discover more and more. In that regard, The Dirty Streets of Heaven was a page-turner. The problem with Happy Hour in Hell is that too big a chunk of the novel was devoted to the author's depiction of Hell. So much so that at times the story comes to a complete standstill and Williams' imagination just seems to run wild and go wherever his inspiration takes him. In that respect, Happy Hour in Hell is akin to the Otherland books, in which Williams would sometimes put the plot aside and explore some weird and quirky corners of his far-reaching universe. Mind you, that portion of the novel remains fun and entertaining. But given that urban fantasy titles need to be relatively short and fast-paced (unlike the Otherland volumes; doorstoppers, every last one of them), I fear that some readers will feel that those extraneous plotlines can at times thoroughly kill the rhythm of the book and get in the way of the "true" storyline. But one thing's for sure: Tad Williams is having a jolly good time!
The first person narrative of Angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, makes for a fun-filled ride. Not always the sharpest tool in the shed, a lovesick Bobby becomes an even bigger dumbass in this one. But for all his faults, it's impossible not to root for the guy! Although a number of familiar faces do return in this second volume, I felt that the supporting cast was weaker than in its predecessor. I maintain that the Good vs Evil love affair is so damn clichéd that I'm persuaded Tad Williams has something unanticipated in mind in store for his readers. Otherwise, that plotline is way too easy, and the author has never been known for taking the path of least resistance. And yet, nothing in Happy Hour in Hell even hinted at something more than meets the eye. . .
The pace is decidedly crooked in this one. The beginning of the book is as fast-paced as The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Indeed, Happy Hour in Hell picks up exactly where its predecessor ended. All the way to the halfway point of the novel, the rhythm is never an issue and the story progresses with each new chapter. But then the book reaches a point where Williams obviously has too much fun traipsing around Hell and the pace slows down to a crawl. Even worse, for about 100-150 pages or so, it's more or less about our angel friend Bobby reaching a series of new lows as he makes his way through the various levels of Hell. The story then picks up again for the last 50 pages or so, but I'm afraid that the long "interlude" truly killed the rhythm of the novel at that point.
Although the pace is indeed an issue, the beginning and the ending of Happy Hour in Hell set the stage for what should be a great third volume. However, given that about 30% of the novel (short by Williams' standards) is a bit superfluous (unlike the Otherland books which were big enough to allow Tad Williams' imagination to take him on a wild ride without getting in the way of the principal plotlines and the overall story arc), this second volume doesn't quite live up to the potential generated by The Dirty Streets of Heaven.