Devilishly funny and a damn good read
According to the author biography, Stephanie Bedwell-Grime has had careers as a television producer, medical photographer and teacher. She’s the author of three previous novels, over fifty short stories and is a four-time finalist for the Aurora, the national Canadian award for speculative fiction. Accordingly, she writes with an impressive professionalism, proving small press standards can equal the biggest conglomerates.
It’s soon apparent Stephanie realises writing comedy is a serious business. Her evocation of the realms of heaven and hell (and miscellaneous suburbs in between) is deftly detailed, impressively atmospheric and thus brings an engaging freshness to the well trodden fantasy theme of the struggle between the hosts of heaven and the minions of evil for the souls of humanity. The opening scene in Limbo’s most popular bar, Purgatory is a blast. There are affectionate nods throughout to writers who’ve gone before her, from William Blake to CS Lewis via Terry Pratchett and various Hollywood screenwriters. There are the expected jokes, with lawyers condemned as the devil’s own but there are also new glosses on such material, with Heaven’s lawyer being the scarily power dressed Nemesis. Such original touches keep the story from sliding into pastiche as does the firm focus on the central story and the key characters.
The foremost of these, Porsche, is a most atypical Guardian Angel, her mother being the patron saint of housewives while her father is definitely from the wrong side of the Styx. Porsche could therefore have gone either way, to a career in heaven or hell. She opted for heaven, even if that meant eons in college. In writing Porsche as more screw-up, than Screwtape, Stephanie Bedwell-Grime slides alongside contemporary crime writing, with echoes of the independently minded female PI from a dysfunctional family who relies foremost on her friends. It’s just that in this case, Porsche’s best pal is Cupid, head cherub, habitually toting bow and arrows (apart from at mass weddings when he apparently takes along a silver uzi). Again, Stephanie uses a commendably light touch with such material. Fluid dialogue and realistic interaction between characters adds emotional depth to draw the reader in without letting the scene setting become scene stealing.
This is a very funny story and all the more so because the laughs contrast with vivid action sequences; the Archangels here are definitely in favour of flaming swords of vengeance while battles between heaven and hell guarantee blood, sweat and tears all round. Crucially, there’s the uncompromisingly dark central theme of damnation or redemption. Porsche has let a soul slip away into the clutches of hell. If she cannot retrieve it, her personal future looks grim and not just because she’ll be demoted to dream despatch. More importantly, as the story unfolds, she becomes committed to saving this soul, Alex Chalmers, for his own sake, whatever the consequences for herself. Even as you laugh at the acutely observed portrayal of heavenly bureaucracy, at share trading in the Great Beyond and the broad humour of Hell’s hostile buy-out plan, you’re in no doubt that Porsche is playing for the highest of stakes. Worse, it soon becomes apparent that someone somewhere has slipped her a marked deck of cards. Lucifer isn’t the only fallen angel in this scenario. The rapid twists and turns as the plot accelerates will keep you off balance all the way to the end of the ride. So I recommend you fasten your seatbelts and start reading.
Of course, where small presses can’t compete with the big operations is on price. In these days of two-for-one and money-off wherever you turn, you may feel a tenner (effectively) is a lot to spend for a book 200 pages long,. If you’re into buying books by the yard (or I suppose that would have to be by the metre these days) that’s up to you. For me, it’s money well spent. Never mind the width, feel the quality. And note in passing how an highly satisfying fantasy tale doesn’t have to have the heft of a house brick..
This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.