10 February, 2012

'Hounded', 'Hexed' and 'Hammered' by Kevin Hearne

Normally I would split these books up into three posts, one review for each. But they fit together so seamlessly that it felt like one long book-- one long, action packed, deeply awesome book-- so I'm going to review them all together.

Let me start by saying that I downloaded these books onto my Nook on a whim. A friend of mine had praised them highly on her Goodreads page, and I thought hey, why not. It was a wise move; once I started I was hooked. The trilogy stars Atticus O'Sullivan, the last Druid on Earth, who looks like a twenty-year-old college kid but is really over two thousand years old. He's living under cover, owning and managing an occult bookstore/tea shop combo in Arizona, hanging out with an old Irish widow who lives nearby, flirting with the cute bartender at the local pub. On the surface it seems like he's living a totally normal life. Except for the part where he gets visited by the Irish goddess of Death, his lawyer is a Viking vampire who accepts payment in goblets of blood, and oh yeah, his dog can talk to him-- in his mind.

In Hounded, Atticus has a score to settle with AenghuÓg, none other than the Celtic god of love, who turns out not to be such a lovely guy at all once you get to know him. Atticus stole a magic sword from him awhile back, and Aenghus is still sore about it centuries later. They've been dancing around each other for a long time; part of the reason Atticus lives incognito is to stay hidden from some of his VIP enemies like Aenghus. But now after almost a ten-year respite, the pissed-off god has found Atticus again, and this time he means war. He sends all sorts of nasty creatures after Atticus and his friends, even sics a coven of witches on him, and worst of all, frames Atticus's beloved wolfhound Oberon for the murder of one of his own minions. With animal control, the cops, ghouls, gods and witches all knocking down his door, Atticus has a lot to deal with. The book moves at a really quick pace, but not so fast I couldn't keep up. In fact, I couldn't stop turning the pages long enough to do anything else, like eat or sleep.

Hexed finds Atticus dealing with the remnant of the coven of witches he decimated in Hounded, who need his help dealing with another coven trying to horn in on their territory. These new witches are some scary shit; they can give a person a fatal heart attack long-distance with one hex. Atticus is wary of all witches by default (they can do unspeakable things with one drop of your blood or one hair off your head) so he's not so sure he wants to help the local coven, especially since he can't trust if they're going to try to get retribution for him killing half their sisters in his battle with AenghuÓg. Their leader, Malina, swears to play it cool, and an uneasy truce is formed. Still, Atticus doesn't like being caught in the middle of a turf war, not when his friends could become collateral damage. Also, it doesn't help that a creepy priest-rabbi duo with a jones for smiting magic-wielders in the name of God seem to be after his skin for having vampires, werewolves and witches for friends. I was sort of expecting the pace, or the level to which I found myself charmed by Atticus's smarts and wits, to level off by midway through book 2, but nope. Atticus is still hilarious and badass, and I still couldn't stop myself from staying up until after 3am to finish the book.

In Hammered, Atticus gets roped into agreeing to help his lawyer and friend Leif travel to Asgard to kill Thor. I know what you're thinking-- why the hell would anyone kill Thor? Have they seen Chris Hemsworth's abs? Talk about a crime against humanity... But it just so happens the thunder god is the biggest douchebag on any plane of existence, and he's amassed a list of enemies so long it's less of a list and more of a directory-- and not just people who hate him, but people who actively want him dead. As the only person with the ability to travel between planes, it falls to Atticus to help the revenge-seekers into Asgard, and hopefully back out again. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. I can actually talk the least about what happens in this book; everything is a spoiler, and the action doesn't stop literally up until the last sentence of the book. Talk about a cliffhanger ending! I'm glad there are more books to come, because this series is excellent; I just hope they get here soon. Really soon. Like hey, Kevin Hearne, it's been six months, what's taking you so long??

Okay, so patience isn't exactly one of my virtues. Moving on.

Easily the greatest virtue of the trilogy is the strength of Atticus's narrative. He somehow manages to be believable as both an average twentysomething dude who loves beer and lives in flip-flops, and a man with an incredible weight of knowledge and power resting on his shoulders. From pretty much minute one of the first book, I couldn't help liking him. And throughout all three books, I liked the way he told the story. First person narrative can be tricky; sometimes it can get so mired in the character's development that the plot starts playing second fiddle. But that doesn't happen here. For a guy who talks as casually about grabbing a beer with Jesus as he does about marathoning the Star Wars trilogy, there's no disconnect between the different facets of his personality. Hearne also doesn't let his hero fall into the endless exposition trap; from magic spells to types of creatures to gods and goddesses from a host of pantheons, he manages to convey the explanations gracefully and quickly, sometimes almost without my even realizing he was doing it.

What makes this one of the most refreshing and fun urban fantasy series I've read in recent years isn't just Atticus's badassery or how funny the books are. I can only explain it by saying they lack that gritty, grungy feel that a lot of urban fantasy feels compelled to convey. Maybe it's that Atticus is a Druid and therefore connected with the earth; there's literally nothing he wants more than to stand barefoot in the grass or go hunting in the mountains. Arizona, too, is a pretty sunny setting compared with London or New York. But the feel of the entire series is just lighter-- and I don't mean the plot isn't as compelling. The vampires don't look like they've just stepped out of a Nine Inch Nails music video; the werewolves drive Beemers and wear Armani. The growing romance between Atticus and his apprentice Granuaile is sweet and (mostly) uncomplicated. There's no excess of personal angst; Atticus isn't the wallowing type. His fears and dreams and desires exist, and he acknowledges all of them, but they're not blown out of proportion to the point where any of them usurp the place of the story as the focus of the books.

As a lover of mythology in all its forms, I loved the way the gods are written. For me it really made the world of the books complete. Seen through the lens of Atticus's awe and respect for them, it's an intimate characterization that nevertheless shows that the gods can be as petty and despicable as people, sometimes even more so. The Morrigan shows up in her flesh-eating crow form just to freak Atticus and Oberon out, and Brighid sets fire to Atticus's house when he won't agree to be her consort. But it's not just the Irish gods we meet-- Coyote, Jesus, Mary, Thor and many more, all real and alive thanks to the fact that people believe in them. It's a surprisingly wholistic look at religion and faith, similar to the one presented in Gaiman's American Gods.

There are a couple of pretty awesome women in these books, but the Widow MacDonagh is easily my favorite. Don't get me wrong, I like Granuaile a lot, and I'm really looking forward to her learning to get her magic on, and to her and Atticus getting it on too. But it's really rare to find an elderly person in urban fantasy who's not a caricature, especially an old woman. This lady has gumption. She starts every Sunday morning with a glass of scotch so she can go to church "warm and fuzzy", blatantly ogles Atticus's naked ass when he un-shapeshifts in her presence, and chases werewolves off her lawn like it ain't no thang. She's hilarious; everyone wishes their grandmother were this cool. 

As for Granuaile and the other women in the books, all I can say is I wish there were more. The witches are awesome-- powerful women who hold their own and take care of themselves. They're proud and sexy without being overly femme fatale, and they're downright scary when they're pissed. Granuaile herself is still a bit of a mystery to me-- she's interesting and sweet, but right now she seems to serve a function in the story more than anything else. She doesn't feel as real as the widow or the witches, perhaps because there haven't been any situations in which she had a personal emotional stake. She's been treated mostly as potential collateral damage for Atticus when bad shit has started to go down, so I'm hoping once she starts learning more magic she can become more of a partner to him-- which, incidentally, will make the adorable crushes they have on each other more likely to pan out in an equal way. You do a good job with your women, Kevin Hearne, so do it more often.

And I'd be doing the books a big disservice if I didn't talk about how excellent it is to find a talking animal character who is neither too cute nor too slapstick. Oberon does everything the trope of the talking sidekick pet is supposed to-- provide a focus of affection and unconditional support for Atticus, be a character foil to him when necessary, and notice things about his personal life that the Druid is too busy to pay attention to himself. But Oberon is so much more than that: he's Atticus's best friend, not just his shadow, a character in his own right with as much heart and soul as any of the others. Who could fail to love a dog who, learning about Ghengis Khan, demands a harem of French poodles for his very own? I will be absolutely devastated if anything ever happens to him; Atticus has already admitted he's kept the wolfhound alive with magic for far longer than his natural lifespan, which I am really really hoping is not a hint of calamity to come. Oberon forever, please and thanks.

I'm surprised I haven't heard of Kevin Hearne before this, but I think it's safe to say people will be hearing more about him from now on. He's landed himself on my "read whatever he writes as soon as it comes out" list, so at the very least you lovely readers will be hearing more about him from me. You can get his books in hard copy or e-book on Amazon. Read them, then pass them on to your friends, because the more people who leave comments on his website begging him to write faster, the better.

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