Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Matthew Hughes' THE DAMNED BUSTERS #OneBookAtATime

First of all, just look at this cover! Angry Robot's design team knocked another one out of the park! And truly, it conveys pretty much exactly what you get inside.

And what is it that you get inside? Only the most plausibly implausible (or would that be implausibly plausible?) superhero story in the history of ever, that's all, fun in the way that only a story about an ordinary guy who accidentally causes a massive labor dispute in Hell and gets superpowers and a nearly omnipotent demon sidekick as part of the settlement can be fun.

And no, that's not a spoiler; all of that takes place in the first chapter or two. The fact these first few chapters are the most amusing bit of the book should not deter anyone, by the way; for this book is mostly in earnest, slightly silly premise aside. As are most superhero stories.

Chesney Anstruther is an actuary by trade, a man more at home with numbers and statistics -- and comic books -- than with human beings, despite his mother's extensive efforts to have him trained to do with his conscious, rational mind what most human beings do by instinct. So yes, probably a high functioning autistic, but maybe it can just be laid at mom's door, for she is a religious fanatic and a moralist of the strictest and most gleeful order -- her main hobby is writing scathing, hideously imaginative diatribes to whatever celebrity her favorite TV preacher picks on that week, diatribes in which the torments of Hell are lovingly detailed. So Chesney probably never stood a chance.

Then he becomes a superhero, of sorts. His settlement with Satan gives him pretty much unlimited power via his sidekick, but only for two hours a day, because his powers derive from his command over the sidekick, the amusingly sybaritic Xaphan, who has to be taken off his usual sinner-punishment detail to serve Chesney. He'll do anything Chesney demands, without loopholes, as long as Chesney's demands don't interfere with the fulfillment of anyone else's, more conventional, deals with the Devil.

Ah, there's the rub. Because it seems that some pretty important people have such deals in place, including, perhaps, Chesney's top boss, W.T. Paxton, tycoon and would-be politician, who is soon pursuing Chesney's superhero self (the Actionary!) with a proposition: help Paxton fight crime, and get access to all of the work of Paxton's firm, including the services of a crack team of top notch reasearchers and actuaries. Including Chesney himself. Oh, and Paxton has a mind-bendingly beautiful daughter, Poppy whom Chesney only seems able to talk to coherently while disguised as the Actionary...

So of course all of this comes into entertaining conflict, made just that more interesting by the introduction of yet another attractive girl, Melda, to turn Chesney's head and draw him into uncomfortable situations. And make Poppy jealous.

All of this combines into a pretty standard superhero plot, and that would make for a pretty decent read right there, but for two things. One is a stiff and mannered narrative voice that gets pretty distracting over the course of the novel -- for instance, throughout the book, Chesney is referred to as "the young man" over and over and over again* -- and the other is the author's insistence on playing a big meta-fiction game, to wit, the central argument the book is making is that it is a novel, a novel that God (aka Matthew Hughes himself) is writing, and it's a draft, and everything can change if the author changes his mind (as said author has many times in the past, or good Christians like Chesney's mother and her beloved TV preacher friend, Rev. Hardacre [who becomes Chesney's mentor] would never touch pork or shellfish or wear clothing made from more than one kind of fiber), and moreover it's going to change, so it's unlikely that contracts made with the Devil are going to be binding because the next big change is coming very soon. Or so the prevailing theory goes.

So uh, if you don't like characters discussing, sometimes at length, their status as characters in a novel, this might not be the book for you. Me, I'm on the fence a bit. Most of the time, I do not like this. I was a languages and literature major once upon a time and still bear the psychic scars of a whole course on meta-fiction and so generally hate this kind of twee crap like poison. But I quite enjoyed the goofy take on a superhero story and still have just enough curiosity about where all of this is going to have a look sometime at the book's two extant sequels, both of which I already have on my reading devices thanks to Angry Robot's ebook subscription.

I just hope it doesn't wind up being all about the meta-fiction. I really, really do.

*But then we come to a passage -- and mind you, this book is very much set in the present, meaning the 21st century -- where we find him sounding much older than he could reasonably be for a character constantly referred to as "the young man": "Chesney could remember when going tieless and unshaven was a mark of low socio-economic poverty." So he was around during the Mad Men era, was he? Yeah, so he's quite the whippersnapper.

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