TheBlueBlazes-7001There is a scene in Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes which encapsulated the feeling of the book perfectly for me:

Skelly experiences an odd moment of bliss – an absurd sensation that all her life has led to this strange and singular moment. Ramping a jacked-up hell-quad over a dirge-singing pack of goblins with a burned-to-death stuntman at the wheel.

Seriously, if you don’t like those two sentences, you’re just not the quality of person I need in my life. Sorry, Aunt Dorothy.

That scene’s the soul of the book. It is fast, exciting, and left me breathless and flying more than once. It’s a quick and bloody read that blends action, crime, fantasy and comedy into a smoky, salty, satisfying whole.

Mookie Pearl is a bruiser with heart, wrapped up in a criminal underworld which seems to fit him fine. His job within “the Organization” involves interacting with the supernatural landscape that lies beneath New York City, in addition to breaking the legs and faces of more mortal nuisances.

Trouble comes to him from three sides in The Blue Blazes: His Boss is dying, the forces below are rising, and his estranged daughter has not only taken up with opposing gangs but is actively working to take over the Organization itself.

Wendig does a great job at crafting characters who are terribly flawed and yet eminently forgivable, people you love reading about but probably wouldn’t want to meet. Their motivations, for the most part, are clear and direct – which helps propel the book forward and provides great surprises when more slippery characters emerge. There’s not a single throwaway character in the book; even those who get a single scene like Skinny Rope are fleshed out and actualized to make you see and believe in them.

The supernatural landscape is composed of great set-pieces that are deftly described and eminently suited to the imagination, though they never detract from the characters or plot. This is not a meander-and-admire piece of world building, but is written with a cinematographer’s eye for showing you exactly enough to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

There’s also an excellent framing device in ‘The Journals of John Atticus Oakes,’ which provides a nicely Lovecraftian counterpoint for those of us who enjoy a little creeping horror in addition to their slam-bang action. While there’s further inspiration from Lovecraft at the dark heart of the book itself, the forces that are behind their actions don’t hide behind the “insane mad cultist” mask. They’re understandable, coherent, civilized, well-spoken and thoroughly sure of themselves.

By the end of the book, every character’s been changed by their trip through the wringer, and have dealt with the sins of their past – the central theme, as I saw it. It’s a thoroughly satisfying end with more than one twist in the final few pages.

Are there problems with the book? Sure, but they’re few and far between.

Aside from the Organization for which Mookie works, the gangscape of the Blue Blazes feels more like The Warriors than The Wire, which wouldn’t be a problem if the Organization weren’t meant to be taken so seriously. One gets the sense that the other gangs are kids at play rather than serious threats to law, order, or other gangs.

One of Wendig’s strengths is in his ability to describe brutality and violence. This is a fabulous thing in his books, but I sometimes wonder how the characters manage to survive at all. It’s harder to suspend your disbelief about the comic-book toughness of the heroes when the action is so evocative. Remember in Die Hard when John McLane walks barefoot across broken glass? Ramp that up and run it over several pages, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.

Finally, there’s not enough charcuterie for my tastes.

That last sentence will make more sense once you read The Blue Blazes – and trust me, you want to. Ask for it at your local bookstore, or order it today.