If, like me, you were introduced to the wonderful and somewhat insane world of Chuck Wendig via Blackbirds, eagerly lapped up its sequel Mockingbird, and then found yourself desperately looking for more, well, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news—I’m just going to go ahead and say it—is that The Blue Blazes is not the new Miriam Black novel. That would be Cormorant, due out at the end of this year from Angry Robot.
The good news is that, if you liked the Miriam Black novels (which I reviewed here and here), The Blue Blazesshould be right up your alley: a dark contemporary fantasy that somehow manages to be fun and unnerving at the same time. (Bonus good news: another gorgeous cover by Joey Hi-Fi!)
From publisher Angry Robot, who also suggest to file this one under “Urban Fantasy [ Family Matters | When Underworlds Collide | Thrill of the Hunt | Chips and Old Blocks ]”:
Meet Mookie Pearl.
Criminal underworld? He runs in it.
Supernatural underworld? He hunts in it.
Nothing stops Mookie when he’s on the job.
But when his daughter takes up arms and opposes him, something’s gotta give….
So, yes, the main character’s name is Mookie Pearl. (I know. It took me a minute too.) Mookie is part of the Organization, a criminal enterprise that controls distribution of a new drug variously known as Peacock Powder, Cerulean, Blue Jay, or just “Blue.” The effects the drug creates (the titular “Blue Blazes”) include increased strength and toughness but also, significantly, the ability to see the various denizens of the Underworld as they go about their business, usually underground but also, frequently, above. People who aren’t in the know frequently dismiss these visions as hallucinations, but like many others, Mookie knows they’re very real and very deadly. As a matter of fact, the Organization’s power in large part derives from its ability to deal with the Underworld—and Mookie is an integral part of this.
As The Blue Blazes kicks off, two important events take place. Mookie’s estranged daughter Nora, who (unbeknownst to most of Mookie’s colleagues in the Organization) is an active figure in the criminal world herself, re-appears and asks Mookie (again) to join her side. Then, Mookie learns that, not only does the Organization’s Godfather-like Boss have terminal cancer, but he’s picked his own ineffectual grandson Casimir to take over the reins. Casimir tasks Mookie with a seemingly impossible task: find the mythical drug that’s similar to the Blue but supposedly has the ability to cure any disease, even reverse death.
All of this sets off a fast-paced story that’s set partly in New York City and partly below it, in the caverns and tunnels where the gobbos, snakefaces, trogbodies and other assorted monsters of the Abyss live. They’re horrific and not very friendly to humans (to put it mildly), but the Blue is a powerful draw, so the familiar world above and the terrifying one below must occasionally intersect. Think Neverwhere meets The Godfather, with a dash of Robert Rodriguez and a soundtrack by Tom Waits. (I can practically see an opening sequence set to “Underground.”)
The setting Chuck Wendig has created here is fascinating: a New York City that’s sitting on top of a chasm to the underworld, with a secret cabal of tunnel workers who know the truth and a criminal organization exploiting the edge of surreality that separates their world from ours. The author slowly teases back the curtain, describing the true nature and history of this world in faux-non-fiction excerpts from the “Journals of John Atticus Oakes, Cartographer of the Great Below” that start every chapter. It might not be the most elegant way to get this info into the novel, but it does allow the story to race along smoothly without needing too many breaks for infodumps.
Mookie is an interesting main character. His description in Chapter One of the novel is almost worth the price of admission in itself:
He’s a high wall of flesh stuffed into a white wife-beater stained with brown (once red), a man whose big bones are wreathed in fat and gristle and muscle and sealed tight in a final layer of scar-tissue skin. At the top of his ox-yoke shoulders sits a head like a wrecking ball with black eyes and shorn scalp and a mouth full of teeth that look like white pebbles fished from a dark river. [...]
He’s built like a brick shithouse made of a hundred smaller brick shithouses.
The interesting thing here is that this big hulking bruiser of a man is actually, in some ways, a softie when compared to Miriam Black. He’s capable of violence, sure, very much so, but he doesn’t have the same biting wit and bone-searing cynicism. He’s more settled, with a place of his own and a job (of sorts), unlike the drifter Miriam who’s always on the periphery. He’s more connected to the world.
The prose in The Blue Blazes will be familiar to people who have read Wendig’s works before, but at the same time it’s also notably different from the Miriam Black novels. There are more short, fragmented sentences and one sentence paragraphs. This creates a tight, cinematic atmosphere in action scenes:
He hears a shotgun boom. Men yelling, though they sound so distant…
He can’t breathe. The creature sounds like fabric but feels like liquid. Davey tries to swing a fist, but it’s like thrashing around underwater—a slow-motion freakout.
He sees those eyes. Just the eyes. Gleaming buttons. Coins in black water.
On the other hand, the staccato narration occasionally feels a bit forced during the less fast-paced parts of the novel. When it works, it really pulls the reader along, but in other instances it feels so unnatural that it may actually pull the reader out of the story. The slang some of Wendig’s characters use has the same problem: it’s frequently right on target but occasionally seems a bit overdone.
The entire novel has an over-the-top feel to it that sometimes veers close to being campy. I don’t want to keep sounding the same note, but really, if The Blue Blazes ever gets filmed, Robert Rodriguez would be the perfect choice to direct—when he’s in From Dusk Till Dawn/Machete-mode, not in Spy Kids-mode, that is. It’s violent and funny and noir without taking noir too seriously. Its main character seems to live on (and for) high-end charcuterie. It’s got an all-female roller derby gang and possibly the most insane stunt car getaway scene I’ve ever read.
There’s something gloriously unhinged about the crazy mix of fantasy, horror and crime-fic that is The Blue Blazes. It’s dark and darkly funny, full of outrageously gory scenes and larger-than-life characters. Its only weakness is that it’s occasionally in danger of becoming a B-movie version of itself, which diminishes the impact of its originality and depth somewhat. Still, in the end it’s an incredibly entertaining novel, and another winner for Chuck Wendig.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on May 21st, 2013.