The Damned Busters (To Hell and Back Book #1)
Angry Robot Books (2011)
ISBN (US): 9780857661036
ISBN (Digital): 9780857661043
Have you always dreamt of being a superhero? Sure you have. What? You haven't. Well, screw it, go with me on this anyway.
Chesney Armstruther is an actuary for a large insurance firm (if you're a layman like me, that means "statistician") whose life is in a rut. Heck, maybe his life is the rut. Rigidly devoted to numbers and the odds, while at the expense of a social life, Chesney finds poker with a few of the boys to be his best bet at gaining a few friends. But, before he can host his first game in his small, dreary apartment, he accidentally summons a demon from the pits of Hell after hitting his thumb with a hammer and uttering some nonsensical profanities. The demon insists Chesney sign over his soul in payment for summoning it, but Chesney refuses, pointing out he didn't actually summon anyone. This snafu leads to Hell's minions going on strike because of the contractual dispute, which in turn leads to Satan negotiating a settlement with Chesney in order to get things moving again. What is Chesney's end of the settlement?
Chesney Armstruther is going to become a superhero.
The absurdity of this fantastical premise was too good to pass up when I heard about it. The book, however, is not what I expected and I wound up reading what was more of a metaphysical satire than a hero satire, with a tone that came off as a bit uneven the longer it went. The book starts off strong, and Chesney's rather dry and dispassionate demeanor plays well in his protagonist role. The villains, as they were, also worked nicely, with the Devil and Chesney's unscrupulous boss either working against him or manipulating him as he tries to figure out how to be a superhero--two hours at a time each day.
As the novel progressed though, I found my affinity towards certain characters diminishing, Chesney included, or never liking them in the first place, like his love interests, Poppy Paxton and Melda McCann. The most comically endearing character was, without question to me, Chesney's endenture sidekick Xaphan, a wisecracking hellion with a penchant for rum, cigars, and 1920s gangster lingo.
Xaphan, in a lot of ways, acted as an animated deus ex machina, and several of the scenes where he helps Chesney muddle through his powers, responsibilities, and tough decisions were the best part of this book. And because of that, the divergence from a story about a wannabe superhero to a story about a pawn in a tug-of-war between Heaven and Hell was more palatable than it I thought it had any right to be.
I guess my criticism boils down to my preconceptions as a reader simply not being met. It's a good book and offers an interesting story, but it doesn't feel like the book gets to the heart of the matter until well past the halfway mark. If you enjoy a good dose of humor in your action novels, this is a pretty good book to consider, but don't trick yourself into thinking it's a superhero novel, as it only flirts with that premise long enough to go where it seems the rest of the series is headed.