Happy Hour in Hell. Book Review

happy-hour-in-hell-cover1HAPPY HOUR IN HELL by Tad Williams
Hodder & Stoughton, h/b, 416pp, £18.99
Reviewed by Catherine Mann

Bobby Dollar is an angel and he’s going to Hell. In this second instalment Bobby is being investigated by his Heavenly superiors and hurting over the loss of Caz, the demon he fell in love with. After he’s attacked by a deranged killer he thought was dealt with years ago Bobby realises that he’s still on someone’s hit list. After much brooding Bobby decides to travel to Hell and rescue Caz from Grand Duke Eligor, and gets help from some unexpected allies. He has a long and unpleasant journey through the various levels of Hell as he tries to release Caz and eventually has to strike a dangerous bargain to get what he wants.

The narrative style remains the same as The Dirty Streets of Heaven, with Bobby telling the reader his story exactly as he sees it. Again the informal tone and cynical asides work well, allowing easy foreshadowing and letting Bobby comment on his stupid decisions. He can explain himself and his frame of mind as well as telling what he did, and the self-aware, mocking tone makes Bobby a more sympathetic character than he might otherwise be. The cast of supporting characters is largely brushed to the side, meaning that Bobby seems more isolated and less connected to his life on Earth. While plenty of other angelic and supernatural characters from the previous book appear they are mostly brief cameos. Only renegade angel Sam and the formerly-naïve Clarence have much to do with Bobby’s story. Though we do get a little more insight into the murky politics of Bobby’s Heavenly superiors, but as Bobby doesn’t really understand what’s going on there neither do we. 

The back story is sketched in efficiently so that newcomers to the series have enough information to understand this book on its own. Most of the major plot arc introduced in the first book is left to inform the background of this story, with the wider situation between Heaven, Hell and the Third Way impacting on Bobby at certain points but not being much developed until the end. The main focus of the story is Bobby’s meandering and frustrating journey through Hell and what he finds there. Bobby’s entire motivation is rescuing Caz and to that end there are interlude chapters throughout this book that flashback to the brief period of time they actually spent together. These scenes largely focuses on sex and physical attraction, even though both wear bodies whilst on Earth, but clearly Bobby wouldn’t be doing all this unless he was definitely in love with Caz. These scenes provide more detail about the burgeoning relationship than we got in the first book, and provide constant reminders of Bobby’s focus. Instead of being a mystery story this is an epic journey tale, where ongoing the mystery rears its head on occasion.

One of the things I particularly admired in the first book was the sense of place, with Bobby’s Earthly life being firmly situated in San Judas. In Happy Hour in Hell San Judas scenes bracket the story, but the focus is Hell and here Williams is able to show the breadth of his imagination. Of course Hell is a fantastical setting and Williams imagines it as layer upon layer of different types of horror and terror. Each level has its own character, and is inhabited by different types of demons and damned, so Bobby’s journey gives the reader a tour de force of the infernal realm. It is remarked on in the book that Hell is much more like a real place than Heaven (which features briefly here but was described more fully as a vague, shiny, happy place in the last book). Hell has settlements, vehicles, jobs and an economy, as well as different levels of technology existing in different parts. It is inevitable that Bobby experiences captivity and various tortures and there are some scenes of sexual violence too. It’s fairly grim stuff, and darker than the first book, although the narrative doesn’t dwell overlong on those sections. Bobby’s journey through Hell is helped or hindered by various characters he meets, most unpleasant or scary or deceptive, but some with just enough consideration and hope to keep most of the book from being a parade of nastiness. As well as his own personal mission Bobby is told to give a message of hope to a demon who preaches hope of eventual improvement, even to the most miserable of the damned. It’s clear that the politics of the afterlife spread much further than Bobby can fathom and intrude even when Bobby is focused only on his own goals.

Happy Hour in Hell develops the story started in Dirty Streets of Heaven, although it develops in an entirely different direction to what I was expecting. This focuses more closely on Bobby and his personal journey. There are events that affect the larger plot arc, and it is moved along, but we are left with as many questions as we started with. There are suggestions of what is coming next, but at this point I wouldn’t like to make predictions for the rest of the series.