Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: Dirty Streets of Heaven

I don't normally do book reviews on my blog because that's not really my thing. And this is only kind of a review - really I just want to talk about some things related to the book I just finished. Reading the book brought up some interesting questions for me as a writer.

Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors. If you're not familiar with him, he generally writes epic fantasy and science fiction. His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is my favorite series of all time, often described as Lord of the Rings meets War and Peace. I love his world building - he creates incredibly elaborate yet believable and consistent worlds. They have great detail but it's only presented as it's needed for the story. His themes are deep and interwoven throughout long stories with lots of background.

I also love his characters. He creates unique people who have complexities that make them interesting, whichever side of the battle they are on. Some you want to hang out with, some you hope to never run into, but they are all full of life and so very real. They also change and grow and evolve into new people over the course of events, and that makes them even better.

Tad's latest book is a little different. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is an urban fantasy, and while there is a series planned for the character each book is stand-alone. It's about angels here on earth and their battle with the minions of Hell. It's written as a detective noir-style novel, with the angel in question, Bobby Dollar, a hard drinking, question-the-system, tough as nails kind of guy.

While it has some of the usual Tad things - lots of interesting characters with complex backgrounds, a fantasy world (heaven, actually), and lots of themes running along with the main story - it is quite different in many respects. It's told in the first person through Bobby's eyes, so you don't get as much of the other characters. The world of Heaven is never described in any detail - it's a nebulous place, apparently (same with Hell), and while there are big stakes in the story they don't actually get resolved because the focus is on just the fate of our one lowly angel.

I did enjoy the book, but I didn't love it. And that is what got me to thinking. My favorite author, a new book, writing as good as ever, first person POV (which is what I've been using lately). Sounds perfect. But I'm not real big on urban fantasy. I don't really find heaven/hell all that interesting. Gumshoe detectives aren't that interesting unless the mystery is interesting. So I still love the author, but not this book.

Tad spends on lot of time on building the world of San Judas, a fictional city that's part of the San Francisco Bay Area. I like world-building when it's something fantastical, and I like stories that use real places as settings, but a realistic portrayal of a fake city didn't interest me at all. I like fantasy and mythology, but the standard God/Devil Christian world we live in is too common. Any take on it seems like it's trying too hard to be real, or to say something directly about our world, and it's a topic that frankly bores me.

In the end, what I took away from the experience is that it's the story that matters. Great writers can write well, but if they write about things that are not of interest to me then I'll not be interested. I should have learned that lesson when I read (and disliked) The Brother's Karamazov. But that info helps me as a writer. It reinforces that I need to have a good story - I still need to improve my wordcraft but the story comes first. It means I need to get feedback from people who like that type of story. It means I'm not going to make everyone happy, and even people that like me might not like my books. Some good stuff to keep in mind.

So I still love Tad Williams. I'll still read anything he puts out. And I'll enjoy it for whatever it is. But if he ever returns to the land of Osten Ard, I'll be happier than an angel getting his wings.

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