Thursday, 13 September 2012

'The Dirty Streets of Heaven' - Tad Williams (DAW/Hodder & Stoughton)

I ought to kick things off by saying that I'm a big fan of Tad Williams' work and have been ever since I first read 'The Dragonbone Chair' way back in nineteen eighty wheneveritwas. There are still a couple of books, of his, that I need to read but that won't stop me being first in line when the next one comes out (yes, even if it was a collection of Tad's 'to do' lists, I clearly need help).

So a new book, from Tad, is a huge deal for me then; especially since he seems to be the kind of guy who keeps things fresh by writing in a slightly different genre each time. This time round we're looking at urban fantasy with 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven'; a departure from the high fantasy of the 'Shadowmarch' series but a sub-genre that Williams has visited before in 'The War of the Flowers'. I thoroughly enjoyed that book (you ought to check it out if you haven't already) so was hoping for more of the same here.
While it wasn't the same book (and how could it be?), 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven' did more than enough to convince me that Tad Williams can pretty much take whatever genre he wants and make it his own. It's one hell of a read (pun possibly intended) and a  book that I think any fan of Urban Fantasy will get a lot out of.

Bobby Dollar is an angel, one of many tasked with advocacy for the souls caught between Heaven and Hell. It's not a great job but it does leave Bobby time for drinking, at his favourite hangout, as well as pondering the kind of questions about heaven that no angel should really be thinking. There are a whole load of other questions headed Bobby's way though, questions that Bobby really needs to answer if he wants to keep his head firmly attached to his shoulders. Why are the souls of the recently departed suddenly disappearing without trace? Just what is it that everyone thinks Bobby is carrying and why are they prepared to kill for it. And just what is the Countess of Cold Hands up to in all of this? If Bobby ever wants to enjoy a quiet drink again he needs answers and fast.

If you'd mentioned angels and Urban Fantasy to me, just a few weeks ago, I've got to say that I would probably have rolled my eyes and said something about the need for a 'next big thing' now that 'Twilight' was all over and done with. Lou Morgan has already proved me wrong with 'Blood and Feathers' and now it is Tad Williams' turn to prove me wrong (again) with 'Dirty Streets'. Urban Fantasy doesn't just have to be about improbable relationships between humans and vampires; it can be as mean and nasty as the streets that it's set against. That's very much the case here.

Having said that though, you don't get to see an awful lot of these streets, not the heavenly ones anyway. There's an awful lot of 'you wouldn't get it so I'm not going to explain it to you, that's just the way heaven is' that leaves a large chunk of the book feeling very vague and just a little flimsy (like if you blew on it then it would fall down). Not great then if you like your worldbuilding and a book with solid foundations. This is a deliberate move though and when you think about why this could be then it does start to make some sense here (especially as there are two more books where any questions will more likely be answered).

The bottom line for me is that 'Dirty Streets' is all about the story, not drawing people's attention to the background scenery. How much do we really need to know about that anyway? It's not like we don't already know that Heaven is lovely and Hell is pretty grim (and Dollar does make that much clear if nothing else). Strip the unnecessary background away and there’s a lot more room for the story to breathe and generally do its thing. It’s a move that really pays off as Tad fills the book with all the intrigue, double crossing, back stabbing and relentless investigation that you would expect to find in a detective novel. There’s plenty room for the action as well with Dollar going up against not only his counterparts, from the ‘opposition’ and closer to home, but an ancient Sumerian demon that absolutely will not stop until he is dead (just like the Terminator but much uglier and does a lot more damage to cars). There are some great sequences in this vein and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tad was writing ‘Dirty Streets’ with one eye on a TV show being made (at the very least).

The air of vagueness, around the plot, also serves to highlight perhaps the most important thing of all in terms of keeping the story running. As a detective of sorts, Dollar doesn’t have a clue what he is doing or what is happening to him. In noir fiction  none of the best detectives know what’s going on, stuff just happens to them until it all falls into place right at the end. That’s exactly what happens to Bobby Dollar (caught up in something that he never saw coming) and his attempts to make sense of it all, and stay alive, are what makes the plot move in the way it does. Full of surprises, bullets and an ending that I wasn’t prepared for. Some of the ways that Dollar gets out of trouble are a little bit ‘convenient’, to say the least, but it’s all so entertaining (and fraught with all the right stuff) that I didn’t care too much.

The love interest is in the best traditions of detective noir as well, although Philip Marlowe never got it on with the dames quite like that I have to say. I don’t think there’s anything, in those passages, which you wouldn’t find in any other adult Urban Fantasy novel though. The main thing is that it works. A sultry dame ready to screw Dollar over but hurting the whole time she does it; you can’t get a lot more noir than that and I’m hoping for more from the Countess of Cold Hands over the next two books.

‘The Dirty Streets of Heaven’ is a book that makes the lack of background really work for it; giving the reader a novel that storms along with plenty to get your teeth into. After walking these dirty streets I’m definitely up for walking them a bit more; just need to wait for the next book to arrive…

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Unknown said...

I'm just starting this so I've had to skim the review, but from what I've read so far I agree with you. This is my first foray into Tad Williams' writing but I'm really enjoying it!

Urban Fiend said...

Right then, add to basket! Cheers.

Unknown said...

This is one I've really waited for