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A Heavenly Mystery [The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams]

September 5, 2012

You would think angels would be perfectly placed to clear up mysterious deaths, considering they can talk to the souls of the deceased – and especially an angel like Doloriel, alias Bobby Dollar, who as an advocate is the first angel a dead person meets (well, some of them anyway – there are far too many people dying for one angel to handle, after all)… and possibly also the last one if Bobby loses his case and the soul gets sent to Hell.

But what if the death looks like a perfectly straightforward suicide on the physical side of things… but the soul is missing?

Gun fights, car chases, a fiery demon older than Heaven and Hell, and the entire afterlife in an uproar, that’s what.

Yes, I have two copies of this book... a borrowed one and my own. And the UK cover (on the right - my own) is boring...

Yes, I have two copies of this book… a borrowed one and my own. And the UK cover (on the right – my own) is boring…

I wouldn’t have picked up a book with an angel as the main character if I hadn’t already known the author – I don’t care much for urban fantasy, and angels… just stay away from me with anything religious! But it’s Tad Williams, who got me into reading fantasy (other than Harry Potter) in the first place, and I’m not only always excited for a new Tadbook, I also knew I wouldn’t have to worry about him getting religious on me.

So, I guess if you take your religion seriously, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re like me, and can’t take any sort of religion seriously, and think the idea of spending your afterlife in eternal boredom bliss in Heaven is kind of stupid… there are some angels who think it’s kind of stupid, too.

I sort of like that much about Heaven stays very vague in this book. The main character spends most of his time living on Earth, in a human body under the name Bobby Dollar, and finds his occasional visits to Heaven as hard to remember or describe as a dream. But that’s still more than he can tell us about what happened before he first came back to Earth, before he died and  became an angel – because he can’t remember that at all. Spending so much time in a human body, Bobby has adopted quite a few human habits, so there’s quite a bit more cursing and sex than you probably expected from an angel (so if you’re fussy about that, this might not be the book for you, either. Personally, I’m not.)

This explicitness is one of quite a lot of things that sets it apart from what I think of as a typical Tadbook. For one, at just over 400 pages it’s tiny compared to most of them. No four-volume, thousands-of-pages epic this time. Instead there are supposed to be three books, which can also be read as stand-alones. It’s also in first person, which (I think) Tad has only used in The Burning Man so far. And only one point of view character, quite unlike the dozens he usually has (I haven’t counted, but it sure feels like that many), although only one main character also isn’t unprecedented. And it’s definitely faster and more action-packed than his books usually are.

I do have to admit have my difficulties with Bobby Dollar. I’m not sure what the reason is, but I don’t love him as much as many other of Tad’s characters. Maybe it is that our personalities are too different, and I can’t find any connection with him, or maybe it’s just that I have so many “imaginary friends” already that it’s hard to fall in love with one more. That’s a problem I’m noticing with a lot of – good – books: I’m no longer caring about characters as deeply as I used to. Or maybe I just need a few hundred pages more until I get truly attached to him.

Still, even if I couldn’t care about Bobby as much as I wished I could, and it took me quite a while to get into the book (mostly because I was in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire when my Dutch friend lent me her review copy, and then I fell ill), once I did get into it, it was hard to put down. Which put me in a difficult situation, because it was a borrowed book, and I try to treat those a little more respectfully than my own – so no reading during meals, with the danger of spilled soup or tomato explosions, no reading in the bathtub, no stuffing the book carelessly into my bag to read on the train (not to mention that reading on the way home occasionally means dirty fingers) – all my usual reading times were out, then. In the end, I finished the book in our Viennese friends’ living room, being very rude and ignoring all the people talking around me, a few hours before I had to be at the airport. I wasn’t going to carry around a nearly-finished book (that I had to treat carefully, too), but there was also no way I would leave before I had finished it! Not when I was so close to the end, and there were things blowing up, boat chases, lots of shooting, demons and mysteries finally being cleared up. (Although my English friend also had a review copy – yes, I have pretty cool friends – so I could probably have borrowed that to finish the last few pages.)

Now I have my own copy, which means I had to shuffle some books around to make room on the Tad shelf, and could read it again far more quickly, because I could read wherever I wanted (and dribble kebab sauce on it…) Everything really becomes a lot clearer if I’m not reading while feverish or half-asleep…

One thing I’m still not sure about is whether I think it’s a funny book. Yes, I grinned or chuckled quite often, but there weren’t any laugh-out-loud lines, and and I can’t think of anything that I’d be quoting to my friends years from now. I’ll have to stick with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Otherland for that. There were even a couple of moments when I felt slightly irritated in a “yes, I get it already!” kind of way. Like,

Did people really get sent off to flail screaming in pits of molten lava and blazing feces forever? I was pretty sure that even the drunken wife-beater didn’t deserve to burn for longer than the stars themselves.

I mean, that’s a really long time.

That last line there was one of those that irritated me more than it amused me.

Then again, there are a couple of scenes that make me giggle when I imagine what people overhearing the conversations must be thinking.

“I wouldn’t know about what I did when I was alive,” Clarence said loudly. A couple of other people waiting for their drinks turned to look at him.

… I know that feeling only too well. I say a lot of strange things in public. I only just stopped myself from saying another one, a Dirty Streets of Heaven-related one, on the way to the Wolf Conservation Trust, when my friend and another volunteer got to talking about how bosses shouldn’t ask employees to do things they wouldn’t do themselves. But then I decided that explaining “Oh, yes, Libra, remember Sam and the flamethrower?” would take too long to explain to the other volunteer.)

Having grown up without a TV, the thing with the trainee angel being nicknamed Clarence wasn’t too funny to me… I got that it’s a movie, but like most movies I’ve never seen it. I did grin when Bobby referred to him as a Junior Woodchuck, though, and I’m almost tempted to check the German translation when it comes out to see if they got the reference – they had better, but I’ve learned not to have high expectations of translations.

… was there anything else I wanted to say? I’m not sure. Probably, but I can’t remember. I don’t even know if I’ve managed to say what I’m trying to say, which is, “not my favourite book or my favourite genre, but still enjoyable. Definitely worth reading… and how much longer do we have to wait for the second book?”

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