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BOOK REVIEW: Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar #2)

REVIEW SUMMARY: The second of the Bobby Dollar series features amazing world-building (or Hell-building) as the angel Bobby Dollar (Doloriel) visits the Underworld to save his demon girl friend.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Bobby Dollar is once again chased by demons and questioned by juries of angels. Everyone wants him to go to Hell, including himself. So he does.

PROS: An amazing and disturbing vision of Hell; more conspiracy layers upon conspiracies, as the norm of what we the reader (and Bobby Dollar) think the rules are between Heaven and Hell are slowly disproven; the character Riprash.
CONS: Descriptions of hell and its punishments so vivid I almost put the book down.
BOTTOM LINE: The first book in the series set the stage by stating the rules of balance between Heaven and Hell…and then slowly showing that their are no rules. This new book burns down the stage and the book of rules, with an amazing, disturbing, thought-provoking depiction of Hell. Who is Bobby Dollar (or who was he before he became an angel), and why he is the focal point of these trials and adventures?

Bobby Dollar (also known as the Angel Doloriel) has lost his demon girlfriend to a Grand Duke of Hell; been grilled in an inquiry of high ranking Angels for not capturing his best friend (who is in a conspiracy that both Heaven and Hell seem to want to stop); and been chased by yet another demon-assassin-undead-psycho-killer named Smyler. Dollar has alway asked questions that others don’t ask, like: Why can’t Angels remember who they were before they were Angels? Now he is hiding the facts about his liaison with the enemy, lying to other Angels (that’s new! didn’t know you could do that) and trying like a dime-store detective to put all the pieces and clues together to figure out the truth about Heaven, Hell and the eternal struggle.

But he wants his girl friend back. And since the Grand Duke that has her wants something Dollar has, Bobby decides to go to Hell.

Whereas The Dirty Streets of Heaven, the first book in the series, was a walk through the poppies of Earth and Heaven (with armed angels who cursed like soldiers, but poppies nonetheless) Happy Hour in Hell is world building at its most intense, a hell where debase, abuse, and repeat through eternity is the unavoidable cycle. As Dollar makes his way through Hell, he gets a view of the opposition that only fallen angels have ever experienced.

People actually lived here in Hell. They sold things, they struggled to be able to eat and to sleep safely. But where were the punishments? Not the punishment of simply existing in all this hateful, overwhelming squalor, but the actual punishment?

Then it struck me, and of all the ugly things I had experienced since stepping off the Neronian Bridge, none hit me harder. This horror around me wasn’t what Hell was really like. Not by a long shot. Lameh had said something about the levels of Abaddon being in the upper parts of Hell, not up where the lords of Hell like Eligor and Prince Sitri made their homes, but not the deeps either. In levels far below us in the great darkness, in the worst of the boiling heat of which this was the merest balmy outskirt, where the souls I had heard on the bridge were made to scream those mind-freezing screams, that was where the real Hell lay. Horrible as this place was, an insult to every sense, a horror to every thoughts – still, by infernal standards I was in the pleasant suburbs. (Pg. 99)

For background, I do not normally invest my time to read novels I would classify as horror (I make an exception for Joe Lansdale, of whom I will read everything, but he is mis-classified as a horror author…but I digress). And I wouldn’t consider this book horror either. But Williams’ depiction of Hell, despite Bobby Dollar’s constant wise cracking…is realistically painful to the soul. Frankly, I almost put it down several times…not because the writing was poor…Au contraire…the description of the abuses of Hell was so vivid and repetitious that it bothered me.

It is also complex and vast, with hundreds of levels and more different types of tortures souls than you can count. This is not Dante’s Hell (though Williams does give him several tips of the hat), nor is it the Buddhist “Naraka” or the Chinese “Diyu” (18 levels or 134 worlds of Hell). But it does have the same basic concept of the lower levels (some of which are called Tartarus Station, Erebus, etc.) being the most tortuous, most brutal and hardest to withstand (for all eternity) with the “living” conditions somewhat better at the higher levels of Lethe and Pandaemonium. I actually attempted to map out the levels, and draw some comparisons with other depictions of Hell. But if this is like his other series, Williams doesn’t tell all, and leaves the filler for his readers imagination. Some of the names of his levels sound familiar (Abaddon, Lethe, Asphodel Meadows) and googling any of them leads to names of Heavy Metal bands, video game characters, people and places from the Bible and other holy tomes. But this is an architecture of Hell that is unique, a Tad Williams sandbox. And he populates it with the types of characters classically expected in Hell and some that you do not.

Hell’s citizens broke down Into three basic types: the Neverborn, who were angels and other high beings condemned here by God; the Damned, which kind of speaks for itself as a category; and the small leftovers called Ballast. Gob was one of these, a child whose mother had been sent to Hell while he was still in her belly.

Williams does his research. There is some interesting hints and history here, such as the story of Origenes of Alexandria who suggested that all souls could be saved and eternal damnation was just not warranted. And as with the first book, Bobby continues to question his (and sometimes the reader’s) basic theological foundations.

Eternity? That still stuck in my craw. I knew that some of these people must have been the worst sort of folks when they were alive, murderers, rapists, child molesters. I honestly didn’t mind them getting even a few centuries of hellfire, but…forever? Even if the damned remembered who they were and what they’d done to get there (unlike me and my angelic friends at the Compasses) how meaningful could any punishment be after a million years? How many of these walking phantoms could even remember what they’d done? And what about the ones like Caz, who had been driven to their crimes by others?  (Pg. 109)

While the trip through Hell is mind-blowing and there are some clues dropped along the way, some of the plot lines started in the first book are barely touched (Dollar’s best friend’s part in that conspiracy, for example). Though the next book in the series has the name worthy of a series ender (Sleeping Late on Judgement Day), with all that still needs to be revealed I doubt that it can be wrapped up in one book…unless Williams wants us to fill in the blanks with our own imagination.

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.

5 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar #2)

  1. Great write-up. Tad William’s Bobby Dollar stories deliver dark urban fantasy in spades. I picked up Happy Hour the day it was released and read most of it in one sitting. Dirty Streets was my intro to Tad Williams, and now I recommend him to everyone. Loved it!

    • Tom, thanks, and I agree about Williams writings (except for his occasional demented comments about the Golden State Warriors, which I won’t read 🙂 ). I’ve enjoyed all of his series, including Shadowmarch and the long-ago published “To Green Angel Tower” series. Though his writing in this series is a bit different (first person, plus he describes a somewhat familiar setting near San Jose) both of those series share his penchant for “sandboxing”…he plays around, doesn’t tell everything and lets the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks as they will.

  2. I generally avoid urban fantasy but Tad Williams hooked me, and I don’t regret it. Really enjoying this series so far.

  3. Thanks, Larry. This does sound most unlike most of his work, but he really is jazzing to write this. Writer enthusiasm for a book matters.

    • You are correct, sir! It is quite different. And the two books, though told with the same perspective, have a completely different tone. Both are quite well done.

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