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BOOK REVIEW: The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

REVIEW SUMMARY: Author Tad Williams does a lot of things differently (and exceptionally well) than in his previous series in a crime-noir take on the concepts of Heaven and Hell, and Angels and Demons.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Souls of the recently deceased begin to disappear and advocate angel Bobby Dollar has to solve the mystery before demons, his bosses in Heaven and the lords of Hell lay the blame and punishment on him.

PROS: Fiery demons! Sexy demons! Angels with assault weapons and cool cars! And just enough recitation of the rules to make the reader realize: there are no rules.
CONS: Not many. A lot of telling of the rules; a story-line that could be a series, but will hopefully tie up some loose ends without dragging them out.
BOTTOM LINE: The first in the Bobby Dollar series is a fun, fast-paced read, with a protagonist that does what a lot of us do: questions the rules of Existence and his place in it while just trying to survive…but Bobby Dollar happens to be an Angel. The rules seem cut and dried…but are they?

Tad Williams in known for his LARGE (door-stoppingly LARGE), genre-jumping, hard to categorize series: Shadowmarch; Otherland; Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. (And apparently he’s known for a cat book, which, since I’m a dawg guy, I probably won’t read.) One characteristic that runs through all of these is that Williams not only follows the “show don’t tell” writers’ philosophy, he also follows “show, but don’t show everything.” Both Otherland and Shadowmarch possessed some pieces that were never quite explained, which made me wonder about them even long after I’d finished. (And sometimes tempt me to re-read…but re-reading is a no-no…there are too many books in this world!)

I appreciate Williams thoughtfulness for those of us who can’t remember the last book…as he always adds in a Here’s-What-Happened-Before synopsis to the front of books that come later in his series. I’ve also read his short story collection A Stark and Wormy Night (no synopsis needed, they were short enough that they didn’t test my old memory). But Williams’ new Bobby Dollar series is different from all of the rest. It is, again, a hard to categorize tome — some call it urban fantasy, but that label reminds me retchingly of Twilight — but it differs from his previous works in several aspects:

  • It is based in a somewhat modern locale, as opposed to a world built in fantasy or cyberspace. The fictitious city of San Judas is mapped to the Palo Alto/ Silicon Valley area (and includes Stanford U.), which is the area where Williams grew up.
  • It is written in 1st person. Bobby Dollar spends quite a bit of time talking to the reader.
  • While it still “shows”, this novel does an awful lot of telling. (I smell misdirection here, but a bit on that later.)
  • It is not door-stoppingly LARGE, on my shelf next to the Otherland and Shawdowmarch hardbacks, it looks like it has been on an Atkins diet compared to the rest.

With Bobby Dollar, an advocate angel, Williams explores the people and beings that populate Heaven, Hell and Earth and the rules that keep Armageddon from a’comin’. There is a mystery to be solved, and there is more than a bit of crime noir bent to the telling. But rules that Dollar tells the readers in the beginning and what actually happens to Dollar turn the rules upside down.  And while some of the rules follow the norm of the Western cultural definitions of Heaven and Hell, this is the unknown fringe that Williams enjoys playing in, and he definitely seems to enjoy  himself.

Quotes and spoilers from here down, so turn back now if you haven’t read the book and are planning on it.

In Bobby Dollar’s world, the angels cannot remember who they were before they became angels. The advocate angels on Earth drink, cuss, smoke, and generally blow off steam.

“So whose this? I’m guessing trainee.”

“Of course he fuckin’ is, B. Can’t you smell the House on him?” That’s how Sam talks about what most people refer to as “Heaven” – “up at the House.” As in, the rest of us work on the Plantation. (p. 6)

Bobby Dollar is the earth name for the angel Doloriel. His best buddy is Sam/Sammariel. They met in the Harps, a militant band of fighting angels doing the “dirty work” in Heaven’s battle to hold back Hell. This experience has led them to be proficient with weapons, so they both carry a lot of hardware. And, based on their experiences with the Harps, they both sometimes question those “in charge.”

“What do you mean?” Clarence sounded outraged. “He died. If he was as good as you say, then he went straight to Heaven.”

Sam’s voice rose. “For what? To become what? Our masters have made certain we don’t know anything for sure, kid. The only angels we know are like us – ciphers with their memories wiped, working for the Man, down here on Earth or our bosses in Heaven. Is that what happened to (him)? They just erased everything and started him over, like us? Or is he one of those poor fools square-dancing in the Fields of the Blessed with about as much of his personality left as a psychiatric patient pumped full of happy drugs?” (p. 391)

The angel advocates argue the good and the bad on behalf of a newly deceased soul against one of Hell’s representatives to determine the soul’s fate – Heaven, Hell or Purgatory.

The main mystery of the novel is that some of the souls of the newly deceased are disappearing. Heaven accuses Hell, Hell blames Heaven and both sides look at Bobby Dollar, who was the advocate angel for the first soul to not show up for his advocate hearing. To save his own skin, Dollar starts investigating, following clues that will get him chased by demons, admonished by Heaven, and make him a target of several of the big nasty overlords of Hell…and what he finds makes the reader question whether the rules that Bobby explained to us along the way are they way things work, or simply that way everyone has always thought it worked.

Though this is somewhat of a “known world”, at least in most Western minds, Williams world-building works here, as some of the understood rules are broken and others are proven to be just not true.  Set in another place, this could be a well-paced crime noir mystery novel (with the obligatory star-crossed romance), but Williams mixes in just enough unknowns to keep the reader wondering about how Heaven and Hell work, as well as puzzling through the mystery. Though I was initially thrown by the change in writing style (more direct, less abstract; first versus third person) the story is enticing and Bobby Dollar is a character that Williams leaves a lot unknown, making the reader wonder about his past and his future.

The series — three books already named, with the second one imminent — has many places it could go from here: do memes from other religious practices like Buddhism or the Muslim doctrine enter in? (Maybe add some Zoraster philosophies?) Is this really an Otherland-like alternate reality? Surely who Bobby was when he was alive plays into this, but who was he?

The Dirty Streets of Heaven is recently available in paperback The next book in the series, Happy Hour in Hell, will supposedly makes its debut in September.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

3 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

  1. Urban Fantasy at first glances seems like such a un-Williams’ subgenre, and yet…

  2. Wait. Who’s reviewing this book? I thought Paul had exclusive rights to review books. That’s why we came up with the cloning machine!

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