The Short Version: Sam Thornton, Collector extraordinaire, seems to be having trouble sticking to a low profile. After being picked up by a particularly nasty former-human, now-creature, he’s tasked with hunting down the remaining eight of them: the Brethren, they’re called – responsible for such hits as the Flood. Like, THAT one. But as Sam’s monster hunt draws down, it becomes clear that he maybe doesn’t know all the facts…
The Review: The cover of this third installment in Chris F. Holm’s brilliant Collector series shows a silhouette of our man Sam staring up at a creepy old Gothic castle. In short, we are promised a monster hunt and boy does Holm ever deliver. The large majority of the book is Sam going after the biggest, baddest archetypes you can imagine: river monster, chupacabra, vampire, sorcerer, and so on. And you know what? It’s a speed demon of a ride – the book is almost over before you even realize it.
I only mention this as a bad thing because I, quite simply, didn’t want it to be over. Any quibbles I had with the first book in the series that weren’t pushed aside during book two were well and truly alleviated here. Hell, Holm drops something on the table at the outset – the decision (and you should be forewarned, this is a minor SPOILER although it does pop up pretty quickly – but SPOILER nonetheless so, avert your eyes…)
to show us dear Sam’s first collection… and he makes that first collection Hitler. And not to spoil European History for anyone, but Sam could teach Ursula Todd a thing or two about how it’s done. It’s a bold choice and I had two nearly simultaneous thoughts as I realized this was the path down which we were headed. Followed shortly by a third. The first two were “if this was his first book, I bet I would be irritated by this” and “I wonder if he’ll dabble into Hitler’s occult leanings here…” – and that third thought is perhaps most important: “I forgive him for the helicopter thing in the first book… because that shit was awesome and now I realize that these books are just about having a damn good time.”
And are they ever a damn good time. This is the sort of adventure story you always look for but never seem to find anymore: full of hair-breadth escapes, devious villains, surprising assistance (my three favorite supporting characters – including one whose absence in the last book did raise a few questions – pop up for a bit), and splendidly twisted plotting. And even if you maybe sometimes think “hmm, I bet I know where this is going” or “that was a bit heavily foreshadowed, I should file that Chekhovian gun away…”, the books (this one in particular, although all three taken together as well) just keep working because there’s a sense of fun behind the writing. You can tell that Holm is just having a blast, cooking up this story and running with it. Plus, the plot clicks along so smoothly that you, again, barely realize that you’re approaching the end of the book until suddenly it’s upon you; it’s that sort of immersion into the story.
But the thing that elevates this series from so many others is the intellectual rigor that Holm applies to… well, everything. I mentioned, in my review of the first book, that I got a His Dark Materials vibe from the overarching series concept and this book – much moreso than the last one – had me thinking the same thing. Sure, on the surface it’s an easy comparison to draw: fantasy, demons vs. angels, God maybe isn’t so great and maybe Hell isn’t so evil, etc etc. But I’m not talking about just surface stuff here – I’m talking about the knotty, thorny, complex issues of morality and life that Holm has his characters consider. The whole pivot of this novel, which I don’t want to go into too deeply for the sake of folks who’ll have to wait til late July or beyond for this book, has to do with goodness/forgiveness and what that all means. In this series, we have established that there is a God and there is an Adversary (even while there are… other forces, older than them and perhaps even, shall we say, completely different) – but what does that mean? Holm gets to play with the big questions – “how could a loving God allow Hitler, allow genocide, allow Sandy Hook”, etc etc – but it never feels forced, like he was writing the book in order to make a point. Instead, as with the Pullman novels and – dare I say this – some of the great philosophers, he presents the questions and dabbles with answers but for the most part allows the complexities of human nature to play out and thus forces us to formulate our own opinions. It’s masterful stuff for a book that looks like a pulp paperback – and has no pretensions at being anything other than a delightful monster hunt.
And indeed, even beyond the philosophical stuff, Holm is just a great writer. Lines like “…an olfactory cacophony of discordant yet not altogether unpleasant spices representing at minimum three continents’ cuisine, and the song and conversation to match.” just knock me out. And, I’ll admit, especially so when they’re followed or preceded by some BAMF street talk from Sam – which Holm does equally well (ex: “I did what any red-blooded American who wants to keep said red blood on the inside woulda done in my shoes: I shot that fucker in the face.” – a line that made me laugh so hard I had to put the book down and catch my breath). He pulls off the rare hat trick of being smart, funny, and unassuming – and goddamn it feels good to read something so confident.
Rating: 5 out of 5. The only thing stopping me from giving that little + is that I’m a cruel and withholding bastard: I wanted this book to be twice as long. We hear rumors of the world descending even further into chaos while Sam’s off on his various snipe hunts… but we don’t get to see all that much of it (although it could be argued that Sam is on his own version of the front lines). And the ending shifts things just enough that the next book – and please oh please, Angry Robot (and Amazing15), just give Holm whatever he wants for as long as he’s willing to keep writing these stories – will maybe deliver just that. Because I suppose that’s the best trick of all: leave them wanting more. I know I’ll be waiting (im)patiently – because our world is a better place with Sam Thornton in it.
(ed. note: I was incredibly touched to catch my name in the acknowledgements of the ARC I feverishly read on my iPhone [because I don’t own an e-reader and wanted to read this as soon as it was possible for me to do so] over the last few days – so much so that I put forth this pledge in full view of the ravening masses, so that I can never welch on it: Mr. Holm, you’re a gentleman and a scholar and the next time you’re in the big city, there’s a round of whiskey waiting, on me.)