I admit I was skeptical. While I enjoyed the heck out of "Language Lessons" and "Something Like Summer," they're both realistic stories, and I had no idea what to expect from something titled "Hell's Pawn." I'm not much of a fantasy guy, perhaps because fantasy can so easily slip into cliche. And a novel about the afterlife -- with talking gods -- would seem especially susceptible to silliness.
Well, not in Jay Bell's hands. He needed less than a chapter to knock me on my butt. Right from the start he piles on the coolness and the fun and the great, original concepts. Again and again I kept thinking, "How does he come up with this stuff?" The different realms of the afterlife -- from Hell to Mt Olympus to ancient Egypt -- are all richly described, and perhaps my biggest surprise was how "afterlifey" each one felt. This isn't the afterlife in name only -- Bell infuses every page with a feeling of otherworldliness that's really impressive. In that sense it's one of the most successful imaginings of the afterlife I've encountered.
The locales are secondary to the fantastic characters, though. From Rimmon the sexy incubus, to Bolo the dog (a refreshing, non-anthropomorphized portrayal), to Yi Yi the tiny and excitable terracotta soldier, to Asmoday the archduke of Hell who bathes in pools of vomit -- these are characters who'll stick in my mind, and I hope to see more of them someday. (We're also treated to a guest appearance by a character from an earlier Bell story that had me beaming with happiness.) Bell should be especially proud of his portrayal of the various gods. They're wise and commanding without ever seeming trite. That's an awesome feat.
All in all this is a fun, captivating novel with big ideas, and it's a great addition to Jay Bell's body of work.