I first heard about this author at convention, where someone assumed that two urban fantasy authors from Tempe, Arizona must surely know each other. I’ve never met the author, but became curious about his books and picked this one up when I saw it on sale, not realizing that it was the third in a series until I was a few pages into it. The author does enough backstory that I was able to follow along mostly, while realizing that there was a lot of stuff that happened before this book. (Probably it would have been better to start with the first one.)
The protagonist is a several-hundred-year-old Irishman named Atticus (not his original name) who is the last of the druids after most were killed by the Romans way back when Rome was conquering Britain. He’s got a sword that can kill with the smallest cut, amulets that let him heal himself fast, and the ability to do all sorts of things, such as shapeshift into different animals and teleport from one side of the world to another as long as he finds a place sufficiently wild. He’s got an apprentice, a bookstore filled with rare and wonderful things, and a sentient wolfhound with whom he can communicate psychically. He’s manly and tough; he drinks beer with gods. He’s a fanboy’s dream. I’ll get into that part later.
The story begins when our hero is sneaking into Asgard (or maybe it’s a different Norse supernatural realm, I get them confused) to steal a golden apple to fulfill a quest he got from what I can assume was a previous novel. Like some trickster god, he lies and bluffs when he can, flees when people wise up to him, and kills when running away fails him. All the while he cracks wise and makes pop culture references that hardcore fantasy fans will easily pick up on, such as references to old Monty Python movies. Some of it I liked, such as the scene where he meets Jesus. Some of it I disliked, such as the sentient dog who talks psychically. Sentient psychic companion animals were cool when McCaffrey and Lackey were doing them back in the 80’s, but it’s a trope worn very thin.
After killing a few mythological creatures, Atticus barely escapes, with all of Valhalla close on his heels, but has to turn right around and go back again because he’s promised his buddies, an alpha werewolf and the master vampire of Arizona, that he will help them kill Thor. They pick up a few other companions, a Finnish folk hero/old god, a Russian thunder god and a supernaturally awesome martial artist. The companions drink together and share tales of their own personal grievances with Thor. This was my favorite part of the book. Hearne seems to know tons about folklore and mythology and if he got the details wrong I don’t care because the stories were good.
Eventually they make it back to Asgard and get the help of some frost giants to kick ass. It’s all action scene and violence and setbacks and victory, like reading a description of an awesome superhero movie that hasn’t come out yet. This is the best thing about the novel, that the action scenes were tight and exciting. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with a new mortal danger for the protagonist and the reader left not knowing if one of the main allies is alive or not. I hate cliffhangers, feeling that they are cheap and unethical, but they work. I could picture most readers immediately going to Amazon to order the next in the series, just to find out what happens next.
Those are the good things about the book. The bad thing about the book is how often Atticus dropped character. Some times I could squint and try to picture an ancient Irish druid kicking ass, but more often than not I felt like I was reading about the author. Example: Atticus says that he “squeed” when he met Neil Gaiman. It’s understandable that a middle-aged, well-educated, white, middle-class urban fantasy author from Tempe, Arizona would do that (I did! OMG! Neil Gaiman!) Do I think Atticus would do that? Not a chance. The guy literally does shots with Jesus and is totally blase about it. Gaiman is a rockstar among fantasy authors, but he’s not bigger than Jesus. Another example: Atticus says the fish and chips at Rula Bula on Mill avenue are the best he’s ever had anywhere. Do I think that Hearne believes that the fish and chips at Rula Bula are the best he’s ever had? Sure. I’ve eaten there. The food is pretty good. Do I think that an Irishman, born on an ISLAND, who has lived all over the world, would grant “best” title to a kitschy pseudo-Irish bar 400 miles from the ocean? Not a chance. Honestly, it’s not even the best fried fish in Tempe (Rubio’s Baja Grill, if you’re asking.)
Some of the characters, Lief, for example, felt like they’d had flaws put in place just to make the protagonist more relatable. If Lief is tech-savvy enough to shut down the power at a Diamondbacks game, he surely knows how to Google and find out why baseball players are called “ball players” and not “athletes.” The scene when Lief and Atticus are trading Shakespeare quotes was fun, but it seemed like Hearne just showing off his literary chops. It would have felt more in character if it had been something just the two of them shared, like, I dunno, some ancient poetry from back in the day.
This is a book written by a fan, for fans. The character development was nonexistent. No one changes or even seems affected by events. They are all manly dudes who act like men, complete with aggression, an aversion to vulnerability, and the chronic undercurrent of homophobia. They have special powers, and some of them have accents, but like most superheroes, they have to dress differently so you can tell them apart. Maybe if I had read the first two novels, I might have been invested enough in Atticus and his friends to care about their triumph or failure, but since I started with this one, I saw it merely as a fun romp with cardboard characters, like an action movie but deeply nerdy. It’s a vehicle for (mostly male) readers to fantasize about being powerful and extra-cool. If you have a Gryffindor banner on your wall, bought your wife a copy of the “one ring” as an anniversary gift, and will tell random strangers with pride about your 1/16th Irish heritage as you show off your Celtic knotwork tattoo, this is your book.