I've always been a big fan of fantastical takes on the whole Heaven/Hell thing, with hierarchies and demons fighting angels and all of that stuff. Tad Williams tackles that genre with The Dirty Streets of Heaven, a gritty novel with a great sense of humor. It's an outstanding first book in a series that's left me wanting more.
Bobby Dollar's afterlife is turning out to be much more hectic than he ever would have believed. Bobby and his friends are advocates for souls when individuals die, but that's not the main source of all his problems right now. He's dealing with his own sins, including anger and lust, as well as souls disappearing before they can go through the testing process. A couple of demons are after him, he can't necessarily trust his heavenly superiors, and he's not sure about his friends, either. Add to this a new kid that he's supposed to train in the advocacy field, a kid fresh out of the Records department in Heaven, and it's understandable that he's a little on edge. Just what is happening with these souls, and is somebody from Heaven in on it? Is it enough to get Bobby killed (again)?
Williams is a legend in the fantasy field, yet I haven't read any of his work except a couple of short stories. After reading The Dirty Streets of Heaven, I know that I've been missing something. Granted, this book doesn't necessarily fit his established reputation (it's a very humorous novel in addition to being grim). Dollar is a sarcastic narrator and not above leaving out some information until he suddenly remembers that he hasn't told the reader something—usually when it rears its ugly head at him.
A good example of Dollar's narrative wit occurs when he gets involved in a car chase. Rather than go into great detail about the chase itself, he essentially tells the reader that he's not going to go into detail—if you want a car chase, watch the movie that's going to be made about his life instead. It's not breaking the fourth wall, exactly, but it reinforces that Dollar is telling this tale in his own way.
I also loved the setup in the novel, with Heaven being this hierarchical structure, but the place itself is almost timeless. When we first visit the place (Dollar's been called back for consultation about something), we see that timelessness, how people get lost in the immensity, almost forgetting themselves. Dollar avoids some of the potential minefields by stating that, no, he can't tell the reader which religion is right (though the whole structure has a fairly Christian feel). We don't see much of Hell, but we see plenty of demons so we get an idea of how it is structured as well.
The characters Williams develops are wonderful. Dollar is hilarious but also in way over his head. Since we see everything from his viewpoint, we learn a lot about him over the course of the novel. Even the side characters are great, especially the demon Countess who causes some uncomfortable stirrings in Dollar as he tries to keep his head above water and figure out what's going on. The other characters are fleshed out enough that there's no real indication of just who the bad guys are (except the demon lord, of course, who is almost by definition a bad guy).
The narrative drags a bit in places, losing its grip on the reader as it slows down, but Williams quickly picks it back up again with either some piece of action, or a Dollar quip, or whatever. It never loses you long and keeps you wrapped up until the end, especially with a couple of twists and turns to keep things lively.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a standout first novel in a series, and it has the benefit of actually including an ending for the current story, though the implications of that ending will resonate throughout subsequent books in the series. It's a riveting read, both for its subject matter as well as the humor.
You can't go wrong with a combination like that.