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Friday, March 9, 2012

Chris F. Holm: THE COLLECTOR SERIES

Author:  Chris F. Holm
Series:  THE COLLECTOR
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence--5; Sensuality--1; Humor--2
Publisher and Titles:  Angry Robot
          Dead Harvest (2/2012)
          The Wrong Goodbye (9/2012)
          The Big Reap (7/2013)

     This post was revised and updated on 8/8/13 to include a review of the third book in the series, The Big Reap. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1 and 2:

          BOOK 3:  The Big Reap          
     In the third book, Lilith sets Sam on the hunt for the Brethren, each of whom exists in the form of a famous literary or mythological monster, ranging from Frankenstein's monster to Sasquatch to Draculaand many more. One appears to be a cross between a Kracken and a Cthulhu. Thus, the book is a horror-filled picaresque tale that delineates Sam's battles with the nine Brethren. Each mini-episode follows Sam as he locates the villain, provides a description of his or her repulsive physical appearance and powers, and battles each monster to the death. The scenes are set in widely diverse settings: an under-construction building in London, a tunnel under the Mexican-U.S. border, the mountains of Colorado, a castle in Transylvania, a Pacific Coast suburb, and a temple in Asia. Once you realize the author's monster gimmick, the story becomes less interestingat least it did for me. As soon as I figured out what each monster was, I began skipping over the descriptions as well as the repetitive battle scenes, all of which culminated in an identical manner. I will say, though, that the back stories of the unfortunate humans who were pulled in to several of the battles were sadly interesting and added much to the story.

     Sam's Brethren assignment affords the author the opportunity to indulge in a plethora of detailed descriptions of each Brethren monster and each locale, sometimes to the point of overload. It also gives Holm a platform from which to  rage against the crimes of humanity: war, greed, climate change, media celebration of criminals, beauty pageant moms, and so forth. These mini-diatribes added little or nothing to the drama of the story. In fact these two story elementsthe monster twist and the cultural sermonsare, unfortunately, an authorial affectation that actually interrupts and thus weakens the plot.

     This assignment puts Sam in a position in which he is forced to jump into living bodies rather than into the newly dead ones that he usually chooses. As Sam learns to appreciate the perks of the living over the dead, he begins to wonder if he is losing his humanityparticularly when some of his meat-suits lose their lives. At one point, Sam thinks to himself, "I kept telling myself it was on account of access or some other necessity, but the fact is, the Sam of old would have found another way. When it comes right down to it, taking living vessels was...easier than it used to be. Less hand-wringy. Maybe my heart was growing harder. Maybe something inside me had given up....Whatever the reason, it troubled me, but not enough to stop. That alone was enough to make me wonder if I'd lost something fundamental to what made me me." (p. 157)

     The plot begins as a straightforward journey for Sam: a march from one villain to the next, with brief scenes with Lilith in between. Then, at the very end, the author reaches back to book 1 and book 2, both for characters and theme (of friendship). Sam says, "Credit [them] for showing me I was not alone. That I was better with friends by my side." (p. 324) (I can't tell you the identity of "them" because that would be a spoiler.)

     An additional perk of this book is the inclusion of four "Then" chapters, which followed Sam from the end of his human life through his rebirth as a Collector and the completion of his first assignment, which involves a major personality of WWII. (Remember, Sam became a Collector in 1944.) We learn all the details of his deal with the demon, Dumas, and we witness Sam's first encounter with Lilith as she teaches him the basics of being a Collector.  

     Once again, Lilith emerges as an enigmatic figure with an extremely complicated history. She appears in all of the "Then" scenes, in the connecting scenes between the Brethren tales, and as the star of the compelling resolution scene. The ending is fascinating and completely unpredictable, although parts of it are entirely improbablebut then this is fantasy so how could anything be improbable? I'll just say that parts of the final Brethren battle verge on the use of a deus ex machina, and that usually means that the author has painted himself into a corner and must grasp outside the plot for a means to rescue the heroand the story line.        

     I enjoyed the "Then" portion of the book tremendously because it told Sam's entire story. The Brethren tales were exciting at first, but then became somewhat repetitive, although Holm's inclusion of the humans' back stories in some of the episodes strengthened those parts of the story. For me, this is the weakest of the three books, primarily due to the author's monster gimmick, which might have worked for a few monsters, but which grows tired after being used so many times. The saving grace in the monster scenes is the ninth and final one, which breaks the mold used in the first eightand what a relief that is. Towards the end of the book, I began to think that this would be the final book in the series, but apparently I was wrong, as Holm hints at future books on his Acknowledgements page. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Big Reap.

            WORLD-BUILDING            
     Samuel Thornton is a Soul Collector who collects the souls of the damned. Here, he explains: "See, the folks who end up like me, there's always a reason. Maybe in life they stripped someone of the life that was rightfully theirsby murder or betrayal or whateverand it ate them up inside. Maybe they made themselves a bargain, and took what wasn't theirs to take. Problem is, there's always a price. See, fate's sort of a zero-sum game: you take what isn't yours to take, and it's gotta come from somewhere else. Which means, you make yourself a bargain, and you're stealing someone else's luck, someone else's fate." (p. 228) Sam himself was collected back in 1944, and he's been collecting other people's souls ever since. His handler is Lilith (Yes, THAT Lilith). She gives him targets, and he collects their souls. 

    Most soul collectors possess living human bodies, moving from one to another as necessary, but Sam prefers to possess the newly dead, for a number of reasons. Here, he explains: "See, most of my kind, they possess the livingafter all, they're plentiful enough...The problem is, the living are noisy. They're gonna claw and scratch and fight to regain control; it takes a while and no small amount of effort to get them to quiet down. That eventual subjugation doesn't come without a cost. It chips away at whatever it is that makes us human....Every time we take a living vessel, we lose touch of who we are." (p. 227) Sam and his fellow collectors refer to their hosts as meat-suits. 

     This is a world filled with demons and angels, who battle, respectively, for the bad and the goodor at least that's the way it's supposed to be. Both demons and angels can also possess human hosts. One of the disturbing concepts in this series is that when living humans are possessed by a Collector, a demon, or an angel, their soulsalong with their minds and memoriescan be irreparably damaged. Unfortunately, not all of the possessed are sinners; some innocents are possessed as well, which is the point of book 1.

     In an essay that is included at the end of book 2, the author discusses the series as it relates to noir fiction and explains the connections between his writing and that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, whose classic titles he "subtly twisted to suit my own nefarious purposes": Hammett's Red Harvest and Chandler's The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep.

             BOOK 1: Dead Harvest             
     As the story opens, Lilith sends Sam to New York City to collect the soul of Kate MacNeil, a young girl who allegedly slaughtered her parents and her younger brother. Kate is now lying unconscious in a Manhattan hospital, where Sam tracks her down. When he reaches into her chest to grab her soul, however, he finds nothing but blinding, beautiful light. The darkness that he is accustomed to finding is just not there. Sam is convinced that Kate is innocentthat somehow she has been framed, so he refuses to collect her soul. This sets off the conflict as Sam breaks Kate out of the hospital and begins to investigate her case. Sam believes that a supernatural being possessed Kate and caused the murders, but he has no idea who would do that or what their reasons might be. As the story unfolds, Sam and Kate (along with two street kids they pick up along the way) run, hide, fight, and run again from the various and sundry demons and police officers who are pursuing them. It seems that because Sam defied his order to collect Kate's soul, both the demons and the angels are now on the verge of an apocalyptic war. 

     Sam himself is a great character who is neither good nor evil. Instead, he's mostly a stubborn pragmatist who doesn't worry too much about collateral damage. But when that collateral damage involves injuring or killing innocents—well, that can be quite disturbing, at least to this reader. Sam comes across as a gritty, chain-smoking Bogart-esqe character straight out of hard-boiled pulp fiction. Sam's back storythe who/why/how he lost his soulis parceled out in brief italicized sections throughout the book. The supporting characters are not nearly as well developed. Kate goes from an unconscious victim to a suicidal wretch to a fearless, battle-ready partner too quickly to be believed. The two street boys (Anders and Pinchvery Dickensian) and the demon Merihem are the most engaging of the supporting cast.

     This book starts out strong, with a well-constructed mythology, an interesting hero, and terrifically gritty scenic descriptions, but after awhile I wanted more complexity and less mindless run-hide-fight. Through most of the story, Sam is just blindly running from one place to another and getting badly beaten up every step of the way. He even breaks his dead-host rule and jumps into a living body at one point in a last-ditch effort to escape death in a police ambush. Although Sam veers from one demonic source to another as he criss-crosses the city looking for information, he never gets his hands on any solid clues about Kate's situation. In fact, he (and we) must wait until the climactic ending to get the lowdown on what is actually going onand then everything is dumped on us all at once. Perhaps the problem is that Holm has been primarily a short story writer and has not quite worked out his novelistic techniques. Book 2 is on its way, so let's hope that he maintains his high standards in characterization and description and becomes stronger in plot development. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Dead Harvest.


        BOOK 2:  The Wrong Goodbye          
     The themes of this book are free will and friendship, especially the consequences of our choices and the ramifications of our personal alliances. This time around, Sam must track down Danny, an old friendor ex-friendwho has stolen a soul that was assigned to Sam for collection. Along the way, Sam assembles a ragtag crew that includes a dead Vegas mobster in a fat man's "meat-suit"; a Texas oil man searching for redemption; and a transsexual, fortune-telling giantess. That's the plot in a nutshell, but there's more to the story than just those bare bones.

     As Sam tries to find Danny, he flashes back to happier days when he and Danny and two other friendsAna and Quinnformed a casual coalition that broke the rules of both Heaven and Hell. Collectors, you see, are not supposed to mingle, but Sam and his friends found a semblance of comfort in each other's company, and that was enough to make them challenge authority, but with great discretion and utter secrecyor so they thought at the time. Eventually, the group had a bitter break up when Quinn was outed, causing the others to blame each other for his betrayal. Now Danny has resurfaced, and he has stolen a Colombian drug lord's soul, which was supposed to have been collected by Sam. When a Collector fails to follow through on a collection, very bad things are in store, and Sam learns all about them the hard way. He also learns that friendship can sometimes backfire on you, but other times it can develop when you least expect it.

     Although the story lags a bit during Sam's cross-country road trips, it picks up when he meets up with Dumas, the demon who tempted him into giving up his soul back in the 1940s. That reunion is filled with both action and angst.

     In this book we are introduced to the legendary Brethren, a group of nine former Collectors who managed to find a way to break away permanently from their forced servitude to Hell. Unfortunately, the spell they used to make their escape caused worldwide devastation, so they are not looked upon kindly by either Heaven or Hell. In the next book, Sam will get up close and personal with all nine of the Brethren.

     All in all, this book is stronger than book 1, which had to spend a lot of time in world-building and early character development. Now, we have an in-depth picture of Sam and his driving need to be one of the good guys. The supporting characters in this book are terrific, particularly Gio (the dead mobster) and Dumas. The Texas oilman started out to be interesting but wound up as the stereotypical grizzled old man with a heart of gold. The ending is a soft cliff hanger that puts Sam in a position of being transported to an unknown destination, and I'm looking forward to finding out where he's going next. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Wrong Goodbye.

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