Bobby Dollar is an angel who serves as an advocate for the recently deceased. Whenever someone dies, their soul is fought over by Heaven and Hell, with advocates from both sides competing for it. Dollar's latest case is complicated when the soul in question vanishes, and even the infernal legions of Hell seem at a loss as to what's going on. As Dollar investigates, he uncovers ancient conspiracies, political infighting even amongst the ranks of the angels of Heaven and that he himself has been targeted by every supernatural gang in California. He just doesn't know why.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is the opening novel in the Bobby Dollar series by Tad Williams. Williams is best known for his shelf-destroying epic fantasies and the extremely slow pace of his novels. His recent Shadowmarch series suffered from a glacially ponderous structure that sometimes threatened to spill over into outright boredom. However, Williams's move into urban fantasy has been like a shot of pure storytelling adrenalin. The Dirty Streets of Heaven moves like a whippet with its tail on fire.
The book outlines its ground rules early on: Heaven and Hell are real, but their forces have been in a state of uneasy peace (or a Cold War) for millions of years. Complex rules govern their interactions. The relationship between the two sides shifts by location; Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths experience different results to those of nominally Christian denominations. Also, being an atheist is no help either. Spirits in Heaven have their memories wiped of their mortal lives, allowing them to start over, whilst those in Hell are damned by their previous actions and forced to recall them vividly. Given the low-key nature of a lot of urban fantasies, it's interesting to see Williams outlining an epic backdrop right from the very start.
Bobby Dollar is our only POV character (the novel is told from the first-person) and is a complex individual, nominally on the side of Light but a bit too fond of mortal vices like sex and drink. His superiors despair of his methods, but he gets results and remains loyal to the Highest (who hasn't been seen or head in eons), so is tolerated. Dollar has a bunch of allies and helpers, such as fellow angel Sam (who he was in the angel special forces with) and a superb information-broker who has unfortunately been cursed into a reversed werepig, only lucid and capable of intelligence speech between the hours of midnight and dawn when he is in the shape of a pig.
Freed from the language and technological constraints of medieval fantasy, Williams goes to town in this novel. The author is clearly having a lot of fun as he hits the reader with a lot of inventive ideas, fast-paced action scenes and decent moments of character introspection. The relatively short length (400 pages makes the book a novella by Williams's normal standards) means that the pace has to be fast and furious, packed with plot twists and revelations
The only complaint that the solution to the mystery in the book relies a little too much on the metaphysics of the setting, which have not been fully explained, so it's hard for the reader to solve the puzzle themselves (half the fun of a good mystery).
Beyond that, The Dirty Streets of Heaven (****½) is Williams on top form, delivering a page-turning, highly inventive, fun read and his best book in a decade. The novel will be available on 4 September in the USA and on 13 September in the UK.