Tad Williams’s newest book, an urban fantasy following the exploits of angelic being Doloriel–who normally goes by the name Bobby Dollar–features all of the brilliant worldbuilding characteristic of Williams’s epic high fantasy, but instead of faraway, vaguely Arthurian landscapes, The Dirty Streets of Heaven takes place in San Judas and features all of the grit and action of a good detective story. The novel is in first person, and because of that we get not only Bobby Dollar’s view of his heavenly work here on earth (Bobby is an advocate angel, which is basically like being a defense lawyer for souls at the point of their judgment–more on that in a bit) as well as glimpses of what Heaven, or the House as it’s sometimes called in the novel, is like. The simple premise of the plot, were I to boil it down, goes something like this: Bobby Dollar is an angel who fights for the souls of humans during their judgment. But one day, on a seemingly routine job, the soul of Edward Walker goes missing, and it sparks a macro investigation by the mightiest powers of Heaven and Hell and a micro investigation by Bobby himself. Sounds pretty alright, yeah?
One of the greatest things about this book is the way in which Williams so cleverly uses his skills as a writer of Big Fantasy Books, the myth/worldbuilding stuff that allows him to pull out a plot through a spectrum of characters, settings, and histories. Urban fantasy is still so often stuck, I think, on trying to not be epic fantasy that it gets lost in the here-and-now details of this or that small scale plot (as opposed to the huge, sweeping plots found in the books of people like Martin, Williams, or Jordan). But Tad Williams is still able to give us some of that neat mythology working behind the scenes of this novel. Sure, the whole thing stays pretty securely in San Judas, and Bobby Dollar spends more time swearing and drinking vodka than he does going after some legendary artifact or leading an army of the Celestial host against the hordes of Hell on the steps of Pandaemonium, but there are definitely hints that there’s an epic story lurking just behind the scenes, and, to be really honest, I think that’s brilliant. Because here’s the thing–you can’t take an entire religion’s mythology and turn it into a gumshoe story without having those sweeping narratives peek through. Instead of trying to cover that intrinsic epic narrative up, Williams is just really smart about where he lets it shine through. The whole novel feels this way, but this issue in particular–the meting out of epic vs. urban narrative–is just masterfully orchestrated.
Williams also has a pretty neat, fresh take on the whole Heaven vs. Hell thing. As I said, Bobby Dollar is an advocate (essentially a defense lawyer) who fights for the souls of humanity to go to Heaven. But here’s how that works: Every time a person dies, an advocate angel is called (like, on a phone) by a sort of angelic operator, and that advocate drives to the place where that person died. At the site of the death, the angel opens up a Zipper to the Outside, which is sort of like when characters in Gaiman’s American Gods go “behind the curtain;” essentially the angels step out of time for a little bit to go through the trial. In the Outside, a prosecutor from Hell shows up, and the judge, one of the majorly powerful angels called a Principality, comes down, hears the arguments from both sides, and delivers judgment to the soul, who just stands quietly (well, some stand quietly) throughout the proceedings. It’s a pretty neat system, and it utilizes so well one of the things I think urban fantasy so often focuses on, which is systems of categorization. You definitely get this in epic fantasy and pastoral fantasy, but there appears to be a much larger emphasis in urban fantasy on having things like rank, level, category, etc. for the different elements (whether they be character-based, magical, whatever) at play in the story. In The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Williams pushes this generic proclivity to its fullest, and we get huge ranges of rank/category in both the denizens of Hell and the winged folks of Heaven. This continues throughout the whole book, which seems like it would get annoying, because once you establish a hierarchy of creatures based on power, you have to know that most readers are just waiting to get to whatever is on the top, so it becomes your job as the writer to hold that information back as long as possible. It’s the same idea with horror; as soon as you show us what’s behind the door (or at the top of the ladder), it loses all its shine and interest. However, Williams is so good at making even the middle ranks on the ladder seem cool that I found myself not really caring when I would get another angel who was more powerful than these guys but still answered to someone else. Whether or not this can continue into the next books in the series (and it will be interesting to see how that happens given where this one ends up) is way uncertain, but as far as The Dirty Streets of Heaven is concerned, Williams navigates the treacherous land of reader expectations and genre conventions like the seasoned pro that he is.
I give The Dirty Streets of Heaven five slices of lasagna.