Fiction Reviews

The Dirty Steps of Heaven

(2012) Tad Williams, Hodder and Stoughton, hrdbk, £18.99, 406pp, ISBN 978-1-444-73855-1


Clearly this is not a normal offering from high-fantasy maestro Williams, author of the best-selling 'Otherland' and 'Shadowmarch' series. Instead, we are joining him to walk the mean city streets of San Judas with private detective, Bobby Dollar, who has a couple of quirks that make him standout from the ordinary run-of-the-mill gumshoe. First, there is the ever so slight problem that he is dead, although this is offset by the fact that he is an angel, known official as the Angel Doloriel, and he is caught in the middle of the age-old battle between Heaven and Hell, even if it is not an all out confrontation, more of a simmering Cold War (pardon the pun) with both sides jockeying for position and trying to get one up on the other. Every war has its soldiers, and pen-pushers, and cooks and bottle-washers. Dollar is none of these, he is an advocate for the souls of the newly-deceased, making sure that they go up 'there', instead of ending down 'there'.

War is Hell, or it could be Heaven for the lucky few, and this Cold War is at times a dirty business, so Dollar does not always play by the book, but when you are up against those tricky demons from Hell then it does become necessary to bend the rules from time to time. However, in this instance, the impossible has happened, and a soul has gone missing, and not been claimed by the forces on either side. Even worse one of his counterparts from Hell has bound found dead, which means there are some serious forces at work, who will stop at nothing to get what they want. But what do they want? Well, if Bobby is going to find the answers he is going to have to be even more hard-headed than normal, winding-up members from both opposing sides and enlist the help of the beautiful and mysterious, and deadly demon Casimira, otherwise known as the Countess of Cold Hands, if she can even be trusted. Added to the character mix are Dollarís friend, Sam, others who side with the angels and a whole host of demons and Dukes of Hell that get in his way.

What we get from Williams is his own take on urban fantasy. I was particularly reminded of the works of Jim Butcher, and that other Williams, Liz, with her Inspector Chen series, and there are definitely some nods to the work of Michael Moorcock, but what Tad Williams brings is a collision of the detective genre, a celestial conspiracy theory and his own unique take on the afterlife and religion; perhaps, wisely, by naming his 'God' the 'Highest' which could be male, female, 'other', or top of the chain in any number of religions from around the world, or none of the above. Bobby does not know either: he is called an 'angel' by way of convenience and is a lowly cog in the cosmic machinery who hardly gets to visit the Celestial City at all, although I would not be surprised if that might change as the author reveals more of the afterlife world he has created.

This is a great side-step from Williams, an inventive page-turner, and I am looking forward to reading more of the series within the pages of Happy Hour in Hell and Sleeping Late on Judgement Day.

Ian Hunter

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