Hellblazer: Pandemonium reviewed

World weary occult detective John Constantine is blackmailed by British Intelligence into undertaking a special interrogation assignment in war-torn Iraq. His guide and fixer is Aseera al-Aswari, an Iraqi archaeology graduate who happens to also be the bait used by the Intelligence Service to entrap him into their service.

Forming an uneasy alliance suffused with sexual tension, Aseera leads Constantine to Abu Ghraib to interrogate a prisoner with unnatural abilities that have thus far frustrated all attempts at questioning. Constantine’s unique knowledge of the supernatural allow him to recognise and communicate with a djinn inhabiting the prisoner’s body. The interrogation reveals much larger and darker forces at work. The culmination of Constantine’s investigations lead him to Kutha, ancient temple of Assyrian deities. Here, he discovers that war is hell in the most literal sense – that the horror, violence and fanaticism of the Iraqi war is being channelled by old adversary the demon Nergal into feeding the economy of Hell. To win vital concessions, he uses his innate cunning to champion the forces of good in the game of war – allegorically an ancient form of poker – where the stakes are the very souls of the war’s victims.

Pandemonium is a welcome return by the original writer of Hellblazer, Jamie Delano. His definitive writing style portrays Constantine at his dubious best: acerbic, antagonistic, witty, contrary – a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed cynic of uncertain morality with an innate ability to mix with all walks of society without being a part of any. Pandemonium pulls no punches: you are thrown straight into Constantine’s murky world without preamble or prior explanation. The story provides an alternative take on a contemporary theme, namely the War on Terror. It’s inventive, mixing enough fact with the fiction to make a satisfyingly plausible yet fantastic storyline. The novel has the feel of film noir throughout with gritty dialogue and a brooding atmosphere. The narrative is provided through the character of Constantine – a man of few words, that nevertheless thinks volumes. He is a character of contrasts that is neither good nor bad, black nor white but a smoky, amoral grey that nevertheless has a fundamental belief in people. When he speaks, he can be terse or dismissive, though in stark contrast often his inner monologue rambles. Sometimes he drops a philosophical gem, equally often it’s a throwaway line that merely serves as a vessel for his black sense of humour (a djinn in a bottle of gin?).

The artwork by Jock I have to say at first glance I wasn’t really taken with. I confess to having a predilection for more detailed artwork from artists such as Simon Bisley. However within a few pages, I revised my opinion since any other style would have detracted from the storyline. As portrayed, Jock’s work is minimalistic, edgy, dark and urban and really marries with the narrative perfectly. In this case, less is definitely more – I am therefore a convert.

Because the reader is dropped straight into the thick of it, I believe Pandemonium is really fodder for existing fans of Hellblazer rather than casual readers. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t prove to be an entertaining read for the uninitiated, but at £14.99 retail for the hardback, most casual readers I think would baulk. But those fans previously acquainted with Constantine’s complex character will doubtless derive the most from this particular novel. For them it pays in spades. Get it.

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