by Simon Kurt Unsworth
4 out of 5 angel feathers.
(I received a free advanced copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for this review.)
Most of us like to act like our jobs are hell. But what if your job actually was in Hell? Then bitching about the broken microwave in the break room would seem kind of silly.
Hell may no longer go in for casting sinners into burning lakes of fire, but it’s still all about the eternal torment. Now human souls are fished out of the sea of Limbo and crammed into human meat suits and live a grubby existence where they are abused by the demons who treat them like second class citizens. The lucky ones may have some kind of factory or farm job where they get to toil all day and live in crowded shabby rooms with few comforts. Unlucky ones get jobs like being sex toys for the demons, and they have a very short shelf life.
And just because you’re dead and in Hell doesn’t mean you can’t be murdered. Demons routinely kill the humans which sends their souls back to Limbo. Thomas Fool is one of Hell’s Information Men, a kind of detective who gets his assignments via Hell’s vast bureaucracy and spends most of his time stamping paperwork Did Not Investigate for the many crimes committed by the demons against the humans. As he’s acting as an escort for a couple of angels on an official trip from Heaven, Fool is assigned to look into a brutal and unusual murder where there are no traces of the soul left in the body, and the Information Man finds himself actually following through on an investigation for once which causes ripples of change throughout Hell.
The idea of a detective in Hell could have been the kind of premise for some kind of urban fantasy novel with a Fool being a smart-ass anti-hero with the rough edges of the setting sanded off for easy consumption. However, debut novelist Simon Kurt Unsworth does a very nice job of creating a Hell that really feels like hellish. The descriptions of the graphic violence don’t skimp on the horror, and he’s come up with some truly terrifying types of demons. There's also some nice world building done with Hell's history and how it operates.
What’s best is the tone he hits at making Hell feel like a place devoid of hope in such a regular everyday way that it’s the banality that is ultimately the worst part of it. With a grungy, dismal vibe to the place, and the blah meaningless of people doing thankless tasks for a faceless bureaucracy, it’s kind of like Fool is working for a large corporation in the setting of the movie Seven. It's an especially nice touch that none of the humans have any memory of who they were or what their sin was. They just know that they did something they deserve to be punished for. The mystery part seemed kind of obvious to me,but there’s still a great ending I didn’t see coming.
All in all, this was a clever and unique debut novel that makes me hope we’ll be seeing more from Unsworth.
Also posted at Goodreads.