Happy Hour in Hell, by Tad Williams

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

Thoughts: This is a book that has my opinion a bit divided, depending on which piece of the book I’m talking about at the time. It seems to range from beautiful and terrifying to “please move on, I’m tired of this plot arc,” so it leaves me in a bit of a difficult position when it comes to reviewing it. Still, as always, I’ll give it my best shot.

First off, I do have to say that there is some profoundly disturbing material contained within the pages of Happy Hour in Hell. The majority of the book takes place within Hell itself, with all its assorted demons and torture, so you can expect some of that going it. Abuse, violence, rather graphic depiction of rape. Or just the straight-up disturbing image at the beginning of the book of the souls who have passed neither to heaven nor hell, but who are closer to hell and so desperately want to get in so that they have somewhere to belong, even if that somewhere is horrifying. Williams knows how to paint a word picture to make readers shudder and feel a little bit ill, that’s for certain. There were a few times I had to put this book down and take a little break and a step backward, to clear my head, before continuing with the story.

Which is a shame, because the detail that Williams put into the development of Hell was incredible, and sometimes as much as I needed that break, I also didn’t want to take it. Hell isn’t just unending whips-and-chains torture. Society has sprung up, with trade and commerce and culture, since the souls that inhabit it still possess personality and drive and there’s a clear power structure. Some levels of hell are less like painful chaos and more like a twisted version of the very world we live in today.

But for me, much of what drove Bobby through Hell in the first place started to bore me. There’s a hugely interesting series of events unfolding with conspiracies and secret cooperation between Heaven’s and Hell’s operatives and the whole Third Way thing is still a force at play, and the primary reason Bobby goes into Hell in the first place is to find the woman he’s fallen for, Casimira, who remains with Eligor. 3/4 of the book, and the source of so many disturbing images, is a guy trying to get his girlfriend back and commenting on the infernal scenery.

It wasn’t entirely pointless, at least. Bobby’s interactions with Eligor were crucial to continuing the larger plot, and the people he met in Hell introduced another plot arc in which damned souls are covertly offered something of a new religion, the growing idea that those in Hell can serve their time and be redeemed and be offered salvation. I’m very interested to see how that idea pans out in the final book of the trilogy, which is due out in early September. The way this series draws on themes not just straight from the Bible or from modern Christian belief, but also from historical interpretations of religion that don’t get too much attention anymore. It’s a really good blending of different aspects of mythology.

But much of Bobby’s trip through Hell seemed very distracted. He was either entirely focused on what was happening at that moment, to entirely focused on needing to rescue Caz (which was the irritating part for me, mostly, since while their relationship dynamic could potentially be interesting, I find that it in itself is a distraction from more interesting things), to oh yeah, there’s stuff going on other than needing to find his not-quite-girlfriend. It got to the point where I had to flip back to the beginning of the book to remind myself every now and again why Bobby chose to go to Hell in the first place, because sometimes it seemed that even he forgot. So while the prose was excellent and suitably disturbing, most of this book felt like filler material. Much could have been condensed for even outright cut while still keeping the story intact and leaving enough Hellish landscape to be disturbing.

Also a bit annoying was the way Bobby’s actions sometimes didn’t seem to follow any logic, even by his own internal standards. There are a good handful of scenes that amount to, “I shouldn’t do that. *does that* Crap, never doing that again! *does that again* Nope, really never doing that again.” Very few of these scenes actually yield anything beyond flavour text, and while I admit this is true to how people act sometimes, doing things they swore they wouldn’t do (even if they swore it less than 10 minutes ago), it made some scenes feel rushed and confused, like the author wanted to fit in certain images but couldn’t really think of a smooth way to do it.

I’m rating this book 4 stars, but it’s a weak 4. The prose was incredible, if a bit drawn out at times, and as I said, the vivid scenes that Williams created affected me in a very visceral way and left me suitably uncomfortable, as it was meant to. But the general lack of plot or interesting development really knocks the book down a few pegs. Not so much that I don’t want to see how it plays out in the final book, because some interesting concepts were introduced and there are some questions that I want to know the answers to, but overall, so much of this book could have been skipped without the reader missing much. Which is a real shame, since the first book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, started the series with a bang, a bright burst of literary light filled with intelligence and potential and dark humour, but Happy Hour in Hell largely seems to fizzle.

But the flame isn’t dead, and the embers still glow, and with luck, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day will revitalize the story and remind me why I loved the first book so much to start with. With less angsting over Caz, and more emphasis on the various plot threads that have been introduced, I don’t doubt that the story can recover from this awkward setback.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

3 comments on “Happy Hour in Hell, by Tad Williams

  1. Pingback: August in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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