Chuck Wendig is a writer who had escaped my attention so far (except for his endorsement on Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now!), despite ISFDB listing 10 novels, one collection, one anthology, a chapterbook, a number of short stories, and a nomination for the John W. Campbell Award. Not for The Blue Blazes, as this, the first book in a series focussing on the character (and named after) Mookie Pearl, was only published this year. The next book in the series is apparently titled Bloody Bride, and is due in early 2015
The Blue Blazes are set in a contemporary New York, with an added underground/magic layer. Yes, it’s yet another Urban Fantasy (or Magic Realism, if you prefer the term), so very much part of the trend. It could nearly be YA, although I don’t think it’s intended as such, and is not being marketed as it, either.
You see, the Sandhogs, the workers who build and maintain the tunnels under New York, have tunnelled into what is now known as the Shallows, or the Great Belows, and from there now come weird and dangerous creatures into our world. Except for the hole being plugged and guarded. You can only see these creatures if you are ‘blazing’, ie under the influence of the drug Blue Blazes, or Cerulean; which is mined underground, and traded, for good money, amongst the cognoscenti. Besides sight it also gives its user strength, toughness, and an increased ability to heal.
But these creatures – Gobblins (“Gobbos”), Snakefaces, Halflings etc which have a great drive to the above ground can look like normal (or slightly eccentric) humans, and seem to have been here for a long time.
There are stories, myths, of ancient Gods at the heart of the labyrinth (below the Shallows is the Fathomless Tangle, and below that sits the Ravenous Expanse, apparently), and not just of Cerulean, but of 5 occulted pigments, including one which can reverse death.
And in-between the denizens of the Great Below and the New York as we know it sits the Organisation – some kind of Mafia style crime syndicate, led by the Boss, as he is known. Who now has cancer, and 6 months to live. Mookie Pearl, as he is know by his friends (and his enemies) works for the Organisation, as a soldier and enforcer, running gangs of Mole People who prospect for the Blue, and fighting the underworld, mainly the Goblins. His is a violent but ordered world; or at least it was until recently. And now he is being compromised, used, and cheated by his daughter Nora, who is going up against the Organisation.
And, all the while, some of the underground/magical/mythical creatures from this huge world below are up to something as these huge changes happen to the criminal underworld of New York.
I won’t spill (and spoil) more of the story – it’s entertaining enough, as long as you don’t overthink the setting, the way the story plays in it (this being planned as a series must account for some of the open ends and unresolved threads), and what felt like contradictions in some of the background. None of this really affects the story, which riffs on topics like (as you can guess from the above) loyalty, family, the complex and ever-changing network of those, and how such times of turmoil lead to the burning of bridges and forging of new bonds.
The chapters are each started with a short extract from the Journals of John Atticus Oakes, Cartographer of the Great Below (missing). They frequently introduce or explain some facet of the setting and this underworld – usually shortly after it appeared in the story, and was misunderstood by the reader. I cannot say I always appreciated this approach…
There are loads of ruminations on ghosts, spirits, their origin/creation, how they wander, and how some remain attached to a body (zombies, anyone?), who live in their own settlement (Daisypusher. No, really) underground. I generally felt that the author was not completely sure if he wanted his Great Below to be a magical place, with all the trappings which come with this, or if he wanted it to be a separate plane/place, but essentially of this world, and a lot of the slightly-out-of-kilter feeling I got whilst reading and re-thinking the story stems from this dichotomy. Again – if you don’t think/reflect too much whilst reading an entertaining story then this should not cause you too much grief.
Other parts of the story, and some of the devices used, reminded me overly of D&D campaigns (treasure in vials at the back of dead-end passages, anyone?), but that’s a minor quibble.
Overall an entertaining read set in a not entirely novel setting – I might well give the next book a go, too, should it cross my path in 2015!
Title: The Blue Blazes
Author: Chuck Wendig
Series: Mookie Pearl
Series Number: 1
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publisher URL: http://www.angryrobots.com
Publication Date: 6 June 2013
Review Date: 131223
Price: UKP 8.99
Format: Large Format PB
Topic: Urban Fantasy
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.