The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams
Fantasy Book Review Book of the Month, August 2012
Latest review by Fergus McCartan
To be honest, before beginning this book I was unsure of the story and concept Williams was portraying. However, I have always enjoyed Tad Williams books and I know he does like to mix up his writing style so thankfully I was pleasantly surprised in The Dirty Streets of Heaven. I found the main characters and view to be engaging. The principle character, Bobby Dollar, is a nice balance of several characters types. If you have seen the movie or read the comics, you will find elements of Constantine, in his view of aspects of Heaven, Hell and Demons. I also found characteristics of Sandman Slim in the anthropomorphic depiction of demons and miscellaneous things that walk. Dresden is also in the mix in the elements of Bobby’s motivation and actions towards demons. Divine hero, wounded, beaten, and tired, out of his depth and trick but ever growing, evolving and becoming something more.
The topic of Heaven, Hell and souls is a hefty one in real life, let alone fantasy. In a good fantasy book we usually are fighting with magic against Monsters and Dark Lords, but in The Dirty Streets we are tackling the issue of the balancing of the soul, and who gets to go to Heaven and who goes to Hell. The construct Williams uses is simple in its meme but complex in approach, and quite thought provoking. Salvation or damnation at the end of a gavel, where every action in life is chronicled and used to defend and prosecute you, no death bed repentance her. As part of a souls judgement we are introduced to the ‘Outside’, a place outside time and this is a nice model for dealing with the number of souls to be balanced. It’s along this path that the story diverges and leaves Bobby with more questions than answers. What happens when you cannot find the souls to judge?
Like most of our fantasy heroes the main character is a lone wolf but he does have some interesting friends and resources which get introduced along the way; the most notable is character called Fatback: cursed, Fatback could be called a were-pig (kinda) human with a pig mind during the day and by night a pig with a human mind. I like this concept, it’s a nice twist on selling your soul and getting what you asked for.
Williams has introduced the notion that as an Angel you don’t remember your past and your first memories are of being an Angel serving God’s great plan. I hope this goes somewhere as it has been mentioned on several occasions in the book. The same goes for the specific details around Angels in human bodies. There is great detail in some aspect but little in others.
There is an undercurrent in the story of a possible division in Heaven. As well as Bobby’s own misgivings and perspectives on Heaven without the rose coloured glasses. Heaven is not divine, and even this world can be flawed. This approach I feel will have larger ramifications in later books. Ignorance is bliss, while knowledge carries responsibility. I am looking forward to seeing where Williams takes this idea.
When Bobby finally uncovers the truth behind the mystery of souls disappearing, and that Heaven or Hell is not the only choice, that there is a third way, his struggle between duty and free-will is written skilfully. God gave man free will, but are we truly free if the only choice is Heaven or Hell. If even Angels have their doubts.
I will be honest though – I did have some gripes with how Williams wrote certain aspects.
There is a constant theme whereas Bobby keeps talking to the reader, telling them lines like “I might tell you about this later” or “it’s none of your business”. Well if we don’t need to know don’t write it in then.
While I know it’s only a story form, I did find the view that you go to Heaven regardless of faith or religion a little forceful and not really productive to the story. I can see what Williams is trying to put across but it felt like I was back in Church on Sunday and Williams is preaching the word, Old Testament style: fire, brimstone and damnation. Thankfully there is not too much of this. I commend the level of detail Williams has tried to portray in some areas of divinity but I did not feel there was the same level of detail for the Hell side.
I love my fantasy and the hero should always have a love interest and Bobby’s love interest was fairly predictable but still surprising in elements. However, I found the addition of a fairly graphic sex scene to be completely pointless in portraying their growing affection. It’s a book not a movie or TV series looking to score rating.
I found I could connect with the story but not with the characters as much as I normally would have. I put this down I think to the lack of detail in Bobby’s character which strangely was not evident in Bobby’s love interest, the demon bitch from Hell, which in the end I actually have a level empathy for. I hope we start to see more of Bobby’s history in the second book.
Overall I enjoyed this book, Tad Williams likes to keep his style evolving and brings us something new in each series. Worth the read and investment for the second instalment.
Fergus McCartan, 7.5/10
Let’s get one thing very clear: if you are an evangelical Christian then this book is not for you. It represents a world that is entirely in conflict with the Christian faith we hold so dear and runs contrary to Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
On the other hand, this book is brilliant! So if you are a Christian and your faith and mentality is such that you can separate fiction from any sort of reality, then this book is a ripper!
I give this warning because I am an evangelical Christian and in my younger days I may have been ‘lead astray’ by the ideas put forward by this book. It is a book written by a non-Christian who has done only a cursory study of Christianity and let his own assumptions about religion influences his work. It’s entirely natural, but it would simply be irresponsible of me not to warn as I have.
‘The Dirty Streets of Heaven’ is, however, a brilliant story told in such a way that you can half-imagine that Tad Williams simply transcribed Bobby Dollars account of events, rather than made anything up himself. It is fully stream-of-consciousness with the relevant moments of uncertainty, confusion and doubling up on information already imparted.
In fact, the last point there may even have been relevant to the story, given that Williams spends so much time on reminding the reader that Heaven is hard to recall after you’ve left.
The story itself was great, albeit a little rushed in the conclusion. Everything wrapped a little too nicely and for those of us who haven’t grown up on Arthur Conan Doyle novels the resolution wasn’t as simple as the author made it out to be.
Putting aside the religious implications of a novel such as this, the spiritual characters involved and the world building that went in to making this particular version of reality is wonderful, and left me wanting more stories featuring Bobby Dollar and his cohorts and villains. The romance was heartfelt and torturous, and tugged at the surrounding-‘unfairness’ of ‘eternity in hell’ leaving the reader considering much more than just the romance on the page.
All in all, if you are of no particular religious bent then this book will entertain you to no end. Otherwise, my warnings apply.
Joshua S Hill, 9/10
Bobby Dollar isn’t your average angel. Sure, he takes the occasional trip to Heaven, but his job as an advocate – arguing the fate of the recently deceased – keeps him pretty busy on Earth, and he’s more than happy to spend the rest of his time propping up the bar with his fellow immortals. Until the day a soul goes missing, presumed stolen by ‘the other side’. A new chapter in the war between heaven and hell is about to open. And Bobby is right in the middle of it, with only a desirable but deadly demon to aid him.
Having previously read and loved Tad Williams’s epic quartets Otherland and Shadowmarch (the Shadowmarch reviews can be found here) I was looking forward to reading his new novel, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which sounded like something completely different. Just the size of the book was surprising, coming in at a lean 400-odd pages.
This is definitely a departure from his usual style – which tends to be multi-character strands across vast worlds – as this novel follows a single character’s perspective as he tries to discover what is happening on his home turf of San Judas (a fictional place near San Francisco?)
But who is Bobby Dollar and why should we care? The easy answer is that Bobby is an earthbound angel who advocates for departed souls to go to Heaven, he has to fight against against demon prosecutors who would see the souls straight to Hell. Bobby – known in Heaven as the Angel Doloriel – is a bit of an arsehole who constantly finds himself in difficult situations and continually goes looking for trouble, digging himself deeper and deeper into the mystery he is faced with. He has issues following the rules, almost goes AWOL and consorts with demons in order to find some vestige of truth in what appears to be a world full of lies.
There are many twists and turns which keep the reader engaged and as I kept reading I felt Bobby became a sort of lovable rogue that I wanted to see succeed, even if he was always five steps behind. He is constantly questioning everything and as he is quite paranoid trusting any of the answers is hard for him to do, especially considering his sources.
This book also has a great cast of supporting characters, from Archangels who rarely leave heaven to Archdukes who like to be far more hands-on on Earth. Bobby is surrounded by the good, the bad and the ugly and those that stand-out are Clarence, the over eager new advocate and the demon Countess of the Cold Hands where the saying "cold hands, cold heart" certainly stands true.
Tad Williams has made his urban fantasy come alive with characters who are well-rounded with reason and direction, resplendent with a rich history and back story.
Michelle Herbert, 9.5/10
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is the first book in a new urban fantasy series by Tad Williams, who we all know for his other great works including Memory Sorrow and Thorn, Otherland, the Shadowmarch Quartet and The War of the Flowers. His Otherland series was the very first fantasy series that showed me just how much fun fantasy books really could be! Having already shown the world that he can write great stuff this new urban fantasy novel further establishes him as one of the very best authors in the genre.
The book is really well constructed and humorous on many occasions. Told as it is through the first-person narration of Bobby Dollar allows the reader to haves feelings for – and be able to connect with – him as he experiences his many ups and downs. Bobby is given a wonderfully nonchalant attitude and he is also very funny, the jokes and puns that he makes are just awesome and the dialogue that occur between him and the advocates of Hell are laugh-out-loud.
The writing style is neat, slick, crafty and catchy. It definitely fits into this genre and the descriptions of the events that take place are just so brilliantly lively.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven isn’t the basic battle between Heaven and Hell. Yes, it has angels, Yes, it has demons, but there is more to it. It is a great and awesome book, totally different from the other books Tad Williams has written but he will attract an even broader audience than before due to this. The book is a light and simple read but that doesn’t take away any of the depth normally seen in his works. From its great introduction to its full-tilt gun action and great character/world building The Dirty Streets of Heaven is rock(ing)-solid! All I can say is, “How many nights do I have to tick off for book 2 to be released?”
A big thanks to Hodder & Stoughton @hodderscape for sending me out a review copy.
Jasper de Joode, 10/10
Ylva from Germany
The Dirty Streets Of Heaven reminded me most of the hard-boiled detective novels by Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler I read in my youth as well as Good Omens, the hilarious collaoration on the apocalypse by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Other reviews rightfully pointed out that this is much faster, much darker than (and much much shorter) than the "usual" Tad Williams story and they are right. But altough Williams takes a new direction storywise he holds to his salient talents: convincing world building (not being familiar with the Bay-area I only found out that San Judas where the scene is set is fictional when I looked it up on the map), convincing character development and his brilliant sense for analogies and metaphors. Here's one that also shows why this is certainly an adult and no crossover story: "Meanwhile she was also doing her best to drive her knee up through my groin and into my chest, introducing my balls to my heart, a meeting that should never take place."
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