Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my GIFTS AND GUILTY list.
Regardless of how many books are already queued patiently on my reading list, unexpected gifts and guilt-trips will always see unplanned additions muscling their way in at the front.
In the interest of transparency, let me say this: the author, Marie Browne, is a friend of mine. I’ve never reviewed a friend’s book before and I’ve been torn as to how to approach it. I want to do my bit to help promote the book because I’d love to see it do well - but then, countering that, is my honesty and integrity as a reviewer. I almost want to over-react to dispel all suggestion of a biased review by writing an analytical assassination of Qualia’s flaws – but I’m not sure Marie would appreciate that!
Rather than continue to confuse myself and fight to remain impartial and objective, let’s just agree now that I was a partisan fan from before I’d even received my copy of Qualia. Having said that, I won’t let my review collapse into boring, rose-tinted flattering drivel – I’m hoping that my extra insights into the writer, her history, life and interests, can provide an interesting perspective for potential readers.
Qualia isn’t Marie’s debut novel – but it is her fantasy debut. Both her previous books, Narrow Margins and Narrow Minds, are humorous memoirs – and I recommend them unreservedly. Those books tell Marie’s own tale about how she reacted when the Rover car company went bust and took her successful IT support firm down with it. Rather than rebuild her comfortable suburban life, Marie chose to follow her (rather spontaneous) dream and move her family onto a fixer-upper canal boat, and permanently become ‘river rats’. It’s an eccentric, charming and heartfelt yarn about recognising, appreciating and fighting for happiness – whatever that word means for you.
Now, sharing your own experiences, in your own voice with your own style, etc – that’s quite a different kettle of fishies from writing a work of fantasy fiction, and yet Marie has not played it safe.
Qualia tells the story of Joe – a human minion working for the archangel Metatron. He’s your run of the mill, one foot in the supernatural world, messenger, courier, demon-killer, etc. But then (to paraphrase the Fresh Prince) his life gets twisted upside down. His latest job is a bit bigger than he’s used to: kill Lucifer (kind of). It turns out that when you get right down to the nitty-gritty, this whole Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, malarkey isn’t as simple as they’d have you believe, and once Joe gets the chance to chinwag with a few of Hell’s bigwigs, he starts to realise he’s been batting for the wrong side for a long time. So begins a frantic quest through the multiple dimensions of Hell to deliver an insurance salesman called Graham to Lucifer’s throne room before Metatron can erase the multiverse. Joe is helped in his mission by unusual allies - fallen angels, alien demons, his hot hippy neighbour, a dead psychic and her necro-bro, a dragon, a centaur, carnivorous goats, and more eclectic friendly faces – while he’s hounded the whole way by the bloodthirsty archangel Michael and his army, the angelic host. Its one hell of a ride (excuse the pun) and as Will.I.Am would say, it’s fresh, it’s dope, it’s a hoot!
There are elements of Qualia’s style comparable to Chris Moore and Marie Philips. Considering the subject matter, it’s not surprising I can see echoes from the Sandman and Lucifer graphic novels. There’s also an unmistakable urban fantasy influence from Jim Butcher. But when I tried to tell my wife what I thought Qualia was like, the strongest similarities struck me from the screen rather than the page – Kevin Smith’s film Dogma and Josh Wheedon’s classic TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. It’s that same blend of humour with supernatural action, clever but silly concepts delivered straight-faced with a wink. The humour here is a much more wry British sarcasm than outright gags, but there were plenty of chuckles from me.
There are a lot of specific ideas I really enjoyed. Technically Joe is immortal, but this doesn’t mean he can’t be killed. Joe can most definitely be killed, with all associated pain; he just bounces back to life again later like some kind of sarcastic weeble toy. It makes him grouchy. I loved the way fairies (and dragons) were enfolded into the Christian mythos. The cute but lethal carnivorous goats were a definite crowd pleaser! Each of the different stages in the episodic descent into Hell were imaginative, challenging and interesting. I also thought the semi-sentient knuckle-dusters were a great weapon. There were dozens of nice little fantasy embellishments and flourishes that demonstrated a deep love of the genre.
But what really stole the show were the characters. All of them are flawed but hugely likeable. My personal favourites were the necromancer, the centaur, the surfer-dude angel Rafael and big, bad Lucifer himself. It was the moments of doubt and hesitation that sold it to me – Belial’s guilt over those he couldn’t save from Hell when he evacuated, and over the children who died because he saved one monster too many. Lucifer’s sympathy for those condemned to Hell for suicide. And Joe’s own constant, niggling insecurities that make him such a reluctant hero made him a star for me (I’m a sucker for an anxious saviour).
So what happened to the 5th star?
I think Marie has just tried to do a little too much, too quickly. This book ends on an obvious hook to continue a series – but to me, the story feels like it’s come from a third or fourth instalment in an already existing series. There’s a lot of condensed explaining to do, about the how the system of faith/magic/multiverse works which wouldn’t have been necessary with a couple of prequel adventures to set the scene more gradually. This adventure is a real turning point for Joe, but we haven’t spent enough time with Joe as Metatron’s bitch for that to feel as significant as it should – again, I just feel the defection would have carried more weight had we been a couple of books in already.
So it’s a solid 4-star recommendation from me. I think Marie’s done a smashing job with Qualia and it’s a really fun, quirky, imaginative ride. I think she should be hugely proud of what she’s accomplished and I can’t wait to see if she does continue the series (I hope she does!)
If you do buy/borrow/steal a copy of Qualia and find yourself enjoying it – please drop Marie a line! She’s a truly lovely lady and has (after a little badgering) embraced her goodreads author account - and I know she’d love to hear from you all.
After this I read: The Alloy of Law