The Dirty Streets of Heaven: Volume One of Bobby Dollar
It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Tad Williams. I’m surprised that it has taken me this long to pick up something else that he’s written, since his first novel Tailchaser’s Song was one of my favorite books as a teenager. What intrigued me most about his writing was his immersive worldbuilding, and it’s a skill that hasn’t diminished over time. The Dirty Streets of Heaven pulls you into the world of Bobby Dollar, advocate for human souls and possible fall guy for the start of Armageddon.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Bobby Dollar is an angel—a real one. He knows a lot about sin, and not just in his professional capacity as an advocate for souls caught between Heaven and Hell. Bobby’s wrestling with a few deadly sins of his own—pride, anger, even lust.
But his problems aren’t all his fault. Bobby can’t entirely trust his heavenly superiors, and he’s not too sure about any of his fellow earthbound angels either, especially the new kid that Heaven has dropped into their midst, a trainee angel who asks too many questions. And he sure as hell doesn’t trust the achingly gorgeous Countess of Cold Hands, a mysterious she-demon who seems to be the only one willing to tell him the truth.
When the souls of the recently departed start disappearing, catching both Heaven and Hell by surprise, things get bad very quickly for Bobby D. End-of-the-world bad. Beast of Revelations bad. Caught between the angry forces of Hell, the dangerous strategies of his own side, and a monstrous undead avenger that wants to rip his head off and suck out his soul, Bobby’s going to need all the friends he can get—in Heaven, on Earth, or anywhere else he can find them.”
After reading this book, I’m reminded of how good urban fantasy can be in the hands of someone who excels at worldbuilding. Epic fantasy is all well and good, and it can really transport you to another place and time; however, urban fantasy grounds that sense of wonder in a world that we can all relate to. It makes it easy to let ourselves believe that a shapeshifter might lurk in the shadows of an alley… or in this case, that an angel might be walking past us as we go down the street.
Of course, this book is set in Northern California, which makes me all kinds of happy. In my opinion, this part of the state is blessed with such a diversity of cities, natural areas, activities and people, it can’t help but provide an excellent setting for the weird and wild stories that urban fantasy is best known for. And while Bobby lives in a fictional city—San Judas—Williams describes it in such a way that anybody who has been in the Bay Area will feel right at home. (I also have to laugh at the fact that the author named the city after the patron saint of lost causes, but that’s beside the point.)
One of the other things that I liked about the worldbuilding extends to the characters as well—neither they nor the setting are perfect. You would think that a story about angels and demons would feature the epitome of good and evil, but that’s mostly not the case. Many of the angels drink. Many have personal issues. Some of the demons have a surprisingly strong moral compass. As for the city, it has its nice parts and its run down parts, just like any other one, but rarely does it stray to the extremes of ritz or squalor. In fact, now that I think about it, locations that are either really nice or really run down are reserved for the most earth-shattering of plot events, which ties in nicely with the good vs. evil theme.
But even though these characters have some rough edges, they’re still the sort of people that I’d love to have a conversation with—probably over some kind of alcoholic beverage. Surprisingly, I found one of the most interesting characters to be the Countess of Cold Hands. She may be on the wrong side of the Light, but Williams takes his time developing both her demonic side and the side that will leave you feeling very sorry for her. Unlike angels, demons remember their life on earth, and it lends the Countess a tragic sense that none of the angels can really match.
I get the feeling that this is a novel that I will not only recommend to others, but that I will re-read a few times myself. The more I thought about what I’d read, the more I got out of it. Williams has created a world that I can truly see as being just a step or two removed from ours. And if I could be sure that there really is a man like Bobby waiting to defend me after death, I’d definitely be grateful. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a novel that will entertain you while making you think about what might come after our lives are over.
Also by this author: Happy Hour in Hell, The War of the Flowers
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on September 5, 2012.