“If the road to Hell is paved in good intentions, a friend of mine used to say, the road to Heaven is paved with bullshit and busy work.”
The Dirty Streets of Heaven
by Tad Williams
Recommended to Carly by: the title. What a title.
Recommended for: readers looking for gritty, hardboiled, angel-mythology UF
Urban fantasy protagonists aren't usually angelic, and in all senses but the literal, neither is Bobby Dollar, a.k.a. Doloriel, angel of the Lord. But Bobby Dollar is basically a defence attorney, and when the trial is over your eternal fate, you want the most fiendishly jesuitical lawyer you can get. In Bobby's world, the judging of the soul turns out to be a very literal process: after you die, a demonic prosecutor and an angelic defender turn up to bluster and bamboozle the judge over your final destination. For Bobby, watching a soul be upgraded to Heaven or banished to Hell is part of the standard work day. What isn't quite so everyday is the soul apparently considering itself to be ROR (released on its own reconnaissance) and vanishing from court. Of course, Bobby Dollar is the lucky angel to turn up on that particular case. All too soon, souls are disappearing everywhere, a demon is murdered, a precious artefact has vanished, and Bobby Dollar is in the centre of the frame. Down these mean streets an angel must go who is trying quite hard to be neither tarnished nor afraid...and not quite managing either.
Other than the lawyerly twist, the mythos of Bobby Dollar feels extremely similar to most of the other angel-based UF that I've encountered, particularly the television programme Supernatural (SPN). As usual, angels and demons are on opposite sides of a cosmic tug-of-war, and lucky humanity gets to be the rope. The angelic and demonic hierarchies are loosely based off of Dante's spheres of heaven and circles of hell, but, just as in SPN, God is so distant that he may as well be entirely absent. Angels take human form (apparently as real humans, just as in SPN, but the details here are unclear) to act as heavenly soldiers and advocates, and yes, they refer to their human guises as "meat suits." Most fatalities of these supernaturals simply lead to a (painful) trip upstairs or downstairs and re-embodiment in a new meatsuit. However, one of the frighteningly novel events that face Bobby is the really-truly-death of a demon. Bobby's world may also take the prize as the least researched angelic mythos I've come across--even Philip "I killed God" Pullman put more effort into it. As even a cursory glance at a Bible would have made plain, the entire "judgement" setup is more closely related to the Egyptian weighing of the souls than the Christian dependence on faith and redemption. Maybe it's me, but I recognized zero of the rather improbable-sounding names of the angels and demons that Bobby encounters. If you do hold religious beliefs, you may want to be a bit cautious with this book: I'm offended by inaccuracies in general, and I imagine completely inaccurate portrayals of one's faith are rather more egregious.
The magic aspect of the worldbuilding had a few entertaining twists, from a were-hog to the spiritual equivalent of a used car salesman, but otherwise felt par for the course for the genre. I always think it's a mistake to try to describe a world that is supposed to be beyond imagining, and unfortunately, I found Dollar's descriptions more dreary than delightful. As the book utilizes the standard deconstruction of faith and Christianity, this may have been intentional, but it did little to make the book enthralling. Perhaps my favourite worldbuilding aspect was the horned, monstrous, and literally smoking hot demon, the ghallu. Again, I wish WIlliams had done the research to avoid naming the spawn of hell after a real-life Punjabi tribe, but the antics of the creature were entertaining and brought back fond childhood memories of Balrogs.
The story takes place in the mythical North Californian district of San Judas, which apparently contains all of the real-life geography and real estate of Santa Clara. While I could believe that Hell is in LA, I refuse to accept that Heaven has an outpost in Silicon Valley. Dollar never strays far from Stanford, Palo Alto, and San Jose, and most of his trips are along such real-life roadways as University Avenue, Stanford Avenue, Sand Hill Road, Campus Drive, the San Antonio Road, and El Camino Real. He also talks about familiar locations such as Baylands Park, Shoreline, and the neighbourhoods of Charleston and Los Altos. WIlliams is hardly shy about placing Bobby at specific locations in and around Palo Alto, so why did he see the need to change the name of the county from Santa Clara to San Judas? I was so distracted by this little absurdity that I actually can't comment on how well Williams manages to capture the Northern California vibe. Overall, I think the urban aspect of the worldbuilding is probably reasonable, especially if you aren't familiar with the area.
Much of my nitpicking stems from a difficulty in feeling emotionally invested in the characters. One reason why SPN kept popping into my head was how aptly Dean's definition of angels ("dicks with wings") fit Bobby Dollar--and yes, in every way imaginable. He has the standard urban fantasy protagonist snark levels and uses profanity several times per page, but I was most irritated by his interactions with female characters. The role of women in this novel make Dresden and Castor look like suffragettes. If you are generally irritated by the standard UF chivalry, don't worry-- chivalry has no place in this book. Women function mainly as sex objects; they are portrayed as both manipulative and myopic, seeking to gain power using their sexuality but ultimately failing because of their inherent dependence on the big strong intelligent men. They exist to be used and discarded by the men around them--and yes, this includes our dear Doloriel. I think one of the female characters was supposed to be relatively rounded, but I've seen "damaged little sex addict" too many times for it to feel novel.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is compulsively readable, with vivid imagery and practically nonstop action. The mystery itself is quite engaging; although I promise you'll pick out the perps long before Bobby does, I found several of the subsequent twists quite satisfying. I personally think that the most interesting aspects of the mystery were left unsolved, but I suspect these are intended to hook the reader into the rest of the series. Williams aptly captures the mood and tone of the classic hardboiled detective, and the story, with its convoluted plot, overt sexism, colourful language, and fast-paced action, reflects both the best and worst aspects of the genre. Plus, it provides the opportunity for a hell of a lot of bad puns.