Book Review: The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

6 Jun

Doloriel, a.k.a. Bobby Dollar, has a tough job for an angel. He’s an advocate, which means when someone dies, he gets the call to argue that the soul should go to Heaven. Or, at worst, Purgatory. Every death has an on-the-spot trial, with a representative from Heaven and Hell arguing for the soul before an impartial judge.

It gets even tougher when the impossible happens — a soul disappears from the body of a recently deceased before that judgement can take place. Hell blames Heaven. Heaven thinks it’s Hell doing a false flag operation.The rules are going out the window, and Bobby is in the middle. Add in the fact that more souls are disappearing, everyone thinks Bobby has something unique, special and oh-so-coveted, and Bobby is in a run and gun for stakes that are getting larger moment by moment…

As I said, Bobby Dollar has a tough job, but he’s also not an ordinary angel by any means…The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a change for author Tad Williams from the usual epic fantasy for which he has made his name (with his Otherland series partaking of those tropes even though its SF).  Here, he switches to a completely alien subgenre — Urban Fantasy.

The novel is in a tight first person narrative, and so we spend all of our time in Bobby Dollar’s head. This focus is unlike Williams’ previous writing, as we see everything through Dollar’s definitely idiosyncratic viewpoint, and Williams withholds some key information, especially about Bobby’s background, by simply not having Bobby talk or think about it at the time. There aren’t any unfair trapdoors, but Williams does spool out, slowly, that Bobby is hardly an ordinary advocate. It does lead to tension in the novel, as Bobby’s paper-pusher appearance is far more well rounded than one might think, with only hints and intimations as to why Bobby is good on the mean streets. It’s a character mystery layered with the other mysteries of the novel.

The Theological worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of the novel. Bobby readily admits that he has never met God, but in the Dirty Streets universe, the theology is not precisely what I learned in my religious education. There is plenty of crunchy details, and plenty of nebulousness about the entire overall picture to keep the mystery of theology intact. And of course, all of that information is filtered and colored through the mind of Bobby Dollar; the reliability of everything he says can be questioned — or at least the gaps in his stories seen. For example, it’s made clear that angels and demons are created from deceased human souls in this universe, but the standards and requirements and methods for that conversion are not so clear (there are plenty of deceased souls in heaven itself that do not appear to be angels or even candidates for same; one presumes the same for hell). Rather than having every angel and every demon to predate the universe, this allows for a variety of ages and levels of experience in the angelic and demonic hierarchies.

Some of these ideas might find their way into my own future roleplaying with games like In Nomine, which tells stories of angels and demons. Given that the hierarchies of heaven and hell do interact, and there are some in-betweeners (including a memorable sisterly pair of ghosts), there is a rich universe that Williams has  barely shown us in this first volume. Another interesting technique Williams uses in his worldbuilding is an altered version of the SF Bay area. The author sets his earthbound scenes in San Judas, a city that sprung from a Spanish Mission founded in the bay area in the Dirty Streets universe, but not ours. This city’s growth, as we learn from Bobby, has affected the development on the south end of the bay, and this extends to, for example, a *very* different Stanford campus than in our universe. I appreciate the author’s willingness to explore the ramifications of changing a city by allowing the ripples of that change to spread out.

I hesitate to speak too much about the plot, as it is an ever unfolding mystery — almost a noir mystery in that we do get a femme fatale (the deadly and beautiful Countess of Cold Hands), lots of revelations, and some excellent action sequences. The skill that the author has brought to swordplay and magic in his epic fantasy translates wonderfully to chase sequences in a city center and gunplay from angels and demons alike. It’s refreshing and relatively uncommon to see angels and demons in a modern setting using modern weaponry — and using them well.

The end of the novel does come to an endpoint, but is clearly a set up for the series to continue, providing enough completion for readers to get off the Bobby Dollar bus; more importantly, this sets up clear lines for the continuation of his story for those readers, like myself, who have been hooked into yet another Tad Williams universe.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams”

  1. alexristea June 6, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    I’m going to speak about the elephant in the room here: Harry Dresden.

    This was a book about a mouthy urban fantasy detective—I thought it actually compared quite well, but a few friends thought it was an inferior version of Jim Butcher’s opus.

    Your thoughts?

    • Paul Weimer June 6, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

      No, I don’t think this is an inferior version of Harry Dresden’s series. Maybe if Doloriel was a magician dealing with supernatural beasties, that would hold water, but a distinctly Christian theology, and an angels versus devils frame.

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