Saturday, August 3, 2013

Chris F. Holm's THE BIG REAP

Stop me if you've heard this one. Boy gets job. Boy hates job but is totally, totally trapped in it so he does the best he can at it according to his lights. Boy's boss gives him an important new project that's finally going to put his talents to use. Boy finds out that this only makes his job suck more. Once again, there is no girl, nor is there a spoon. Well, there is a woman (we do like being called women when we reach adulthood)* but she's pretty much off limits, because she's the boss.

I'm pretty sure we can all relate to this one.

The Big Reap is the latest in Chris F. Holm's Collector series, and a book I've been eagerly anticipating. I enjoyed the first two so very, very much. But since one of the big questions I had going into it was, could it possibly be as awesome as was The Wrong Goodbye?** That's always a dangerous question to be asking as one begins a book, and I dislike having such questions on my mind as it's a strong indicator that I'm not going to be enjoying the book solely on its own merits (see also my experience with Doctor Who: Harvest of Time, the other book I was dying to get my hands on this summer).

But really, The Wrong Goodbye was one of my favorite things I read last year. And here we are, returning to the weird, sad, funny, outrageous world of Sam Thornton once again, so how can I not compare? How can my expectations not be high?

This is not to say that they weren't met, or more precisely not met at all. But there was something missing this time around, for me, and I'm not just talking about hospital/morgue hijinks as Sam steals his next body to inhabit.*** I've been having trouble putting my finger what it is that's felt missing, though.

Partly, I suppose, it's that each successive novel has almost felt like it was playing for more modest stakes than the last. In Dead Harvest, Sam was only focusing on saving one girl, but in saving that girl he was also saving the world from an all-out war between Heaven and Hell; in The Wrong Goodbye he was trying to collect a particularly nasty soul, the possession of which might give one side an undue advantage over the other; in The Big Reap he's really just kind of acting as a janitor or errand boy. He's taking on, in the process, some seriously grotesque and powerful monsters, monsters that turn out to have had an undue influence over human history, but even after Holm brings back a few much-loved characters from the prior two books to help out (and be put in danger), Sam's jeopardy now feels like Doctor Who jeopardy, except for one thing that I can't talk about without spoiling everything.

The book is still, though, a fine, fine addition to a series that I enjoy a lot -- it made me want to re-read its predecessors, the better to admire how he's constructed the story arc (and believe me, it's worth admiring) -- but I'm not sure, if I hadn't read those books, if this book would have made me want to. As part of the series, it's still pretty satisfying, but as a stand-alone work, less so.

I still, make no mistake, read the whole thing in as few sittings as I could manage, with no flitting to other books like I do. And doubtless this will always be my way, with Mr. Holm.

For Holm has carefully left room for more Collector books to happen, and I'll be along the ride if/when he does -- I'm especially interested to see what Sam's stories are like without [REDACTED] -- but I hope he starts thinking a little bigger for them again.

Or more intimate. Because on the whole, I prefer smaller and more intimate stories. If your theme is eternal cosmic conflict, though....? Holm balanced this beautifully in the first two books. Here, he just went for a video game-style quest narrative with flashbacks. But you know what? Holy crap, do I want to play this as a video game now.

Which probably says more about me than about the book.

I still very strongly suspect that Mr. Holm is only going to get better, though.

*Well, except when "woman" is used in place of our proper names. That's a bit crass.

**Yes, his titles are all riffs on famous crime novel titles. I love this about Holm.

***For those of you who haven't read my prior reviews or the books, Sam is a sort of ghost, whose job is to collect the souls of the damned, and he has to borrow bodies from the living or the freshly dead to do it. In the first two novels, he stuck to newly dead ones for ethical reasons -- crowding a living mind and soul out of the driver's seat of its own body is kind of a dick move, yo -- but in this novel, for a variety of perfectly justifiable reasons, he's mostly piloting living bodies. A bit of tasty conscience wrestling thus occurs, but not that much, because its one of this world's conceits that every time Sam possesses a body, he leaves a little of his humanity behind when he leaves the vessel, and he's been doing this for something like 60 years as most of this story takes place.

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