As I've stated before, I've always found Tad Williams’ body of work a mixed bag. I loved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn but everything since has left me cold. Until I read The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Williams’ first foray into urban fantasy. The first of the Bobby Dollar series moved Tad back to my must read list. I was fortunate to get a review copy directly from the author, and spent most of my Labor Day weekend following the further adventures of Heaven’s most love struck angel. I won’t sugar coat it, fans of the rapid fire pacing of the stereotypical urban fantasy novel may find Happy Hour in Hell to be a step backward from the frenetic pace of its predecessor, but those who are accustomed to the door-stopper sized novels from Williams’ previous work, will find the richer world building comforting and familiar. Happy Hour in Hell may suffer a bit from middle-book syndrome, but it is still a worthy addition to the series and Tad’s oeuvre as well.
Happy Hour in Hell picks up right where we left off. Bobby is still being questioned about the events that closed The Dirty Streets of Heaven, and is lying his celestial ass off about almost everything. Add in his obsession with reuniting with his demonic lover Casimira and we have the recipe for a roiling witch’s brew of a tale. It’s not long before Bobby makes the decision that he will brave Hell itself to be reunited with Caz. But despite help from an unexpected benefactor, Bobby finds himself in the very depths of Hell with a host of enemies, both old and new, hot on his heels as he tries to rescue Caz from the clutches of Duke Eligor.
I’ve noticed a tendency toward complaint in the reviews on Happy Hour in Hell. Most of the complaints center around the amount of time Williams’ spends describing his version of Hell. This is a valid observation, but whether or not it is a valid complaint or not is probably more a matter of opinion than anything else. I can’t argue that Bobby spends what feels like a ridiculous amount of time slogging through level after level of Hell. It feels dark, depressing, and almost crushing in the level of disheartening despair that both our protagonists and the denizens of Hell are faced with. There’s an abundance of violence, pointless suffering and cruelty on every page. It’s soul crushing at times.
Sounds like hell doesn't it? That’s because Williams’ wants us to experience it along with Bobby, to make us feel the despair, the desire to just lie down and quit. He accomplishes it, perhaps a bit too well. But I have a hard time finding fault, despite how challenging this sequel was for me at times. Despite the harrowing task of riding around inside the first person narration of an angel who is literally trapped in hell, where every new environment brings new challenges and heaps another metric ton of weariness on his shoulders, I can honestly say that this was one of the most immersive experiences of my reading career. I felt Bobby’s despair, his anger at the senseless and cruelty of it all, as if they were my own. That’s a pretty big accomplishment in my book, even if it wasn't always pleasant.
Another possible complaint is that the tone of the narration isn't consistent with the Bobby Dollar readers have come to know and love. The level of snark and wit is decidedly muted during most of the book. But once again, its hard to be a wisecracking smart ass when your soul is being crushed by the weight of an environment designed to destroy not just the body but the soul for all eternity. Having Bobby be his usual, wiseacre self, would have been a disservice to all the world building that dominates the novel. But the beginning and end of the novel have a healthy amount of the tone that made The Dirty Streets of Heaven so popular.
The plot is full of the requisite twists, reversals, and complications that fans of Bobby Dollar would expect. There is action a plenty, but it’s not spread throughout the narrative as well as it could be. But I suspect it’s by design, as is the lack of the usual supporting characters through the majority of the book. Williams’ takes some serious risks in isolating his protagonist as it will no doubt alienate some readers. It’s not for me to say whether that is worth it or not. But for my part, I found the experiment a worthy one.
Rarely have I felt myself so immersed in the emotional state of a fictional character. I will admit that the ending, which sets up the next volume to be quite the page turner, left me frustrated and angry. But making deals with a devil is a losing proposition. In spite of the weightiness of this middle volume, I feel confident that Bobby Dollar will be up to his usual antics soon, and the final volume will be served well by the trials both he and the reader endured during their time in Hell.