I knew I had to read James D. Macdonald's The Apocalypse Door right from its opening paragraphs:
When Dante Alighieri wrote his guided tour of Hell one of the stops was the infernal city of Dis: the home of Pandemonium, all of the demons. Dante's a great source if you want to figure out whether being an adulterer is better or worse than being an oathbreaker, but he doesn't have the authority of Gospel. Dante said that the lowest circle of Hell is frozen, for example. Me, I don't believe it.
Newark, New Jersey, isn't the City of Dis, but it could play the part on TV without having to spend a lot of time in rehearsals. By day, Newark's crowded and noisy and polluted, full of too many people going places too fast in pursuit of money or power or pleasure. By night it's all that and dark as well, with danger waiting in the shadows to catch the unwary.
I'd just finished a job in Canada, checking out a report of Black Masses being celebrated, and was on a get-well tour in New York, staying in a midtown Manhattan hotel and waiting for the stitches to come out. Breakfast was Eggs Benedict. When I'm on the Temple's expense account I don't spare my coronary arteries.
Yeah, I'm a Knight of the Temple. We didn't go away in the fourteenth century, no matter what Philip the Fair tried to pull. The Order has a mission and we're carrying it out. To protect holy places, travelers in holy places, and certain relics. Straightforward. You'd think that people would let us just get on with it.
I read the first chapter on the author's website, and when I hit "Yeah, I'm a Knight of the Temple," I said out loud, "We are so buying this." And we did.
Chad beat me to reading it, the day it arrived from Amazon, by the simple expedient of picking it up while my back was turned to check my e-mail. I see from the comments to his booklog entry that a couple of people have already decided to check this out. If you weren't hooked by the opening or Chad's review, let me take another shot at convincing you that you really do need to read this book.
The initial setup should be fairly obvious from that quotation: the story is narrated in First Person Hardboiled by Peter Crossman (not his original name), a warrior priest in the innermost circle of the Temple. He gets tapped to investigate a longshot lead in the disappearance of some UN peacekeepers: a warehouse in Newark with unusually serious security. It's expected to be an easy job; it's even going to serve as an on-the-job evaluation of a new Knight. When they break in, they don't find the bodies of the missing peacekeepers; what they do find, growing in a crate, is something like mushroom stalks. That bleed when broken and recoil at the sign of the Cross.
This book is impressive because it manages to come up with wacky situations like eeeevil fungi (at one point while reading, I got up for a drink of water and commented to Chad, "Running the good cop/bad cop on a talking brass head . . . !") while still taking its characters seriously. The warrior priest thing isn't just a gag (or the assassin nun thing either—did I mention Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares?), but part of the characters all the way down. Crossman gets caught in an ethical bind when his would-be assassin tells him, under the seal of the confessional, that she intends to kill him; discovers that giving last rites to someone who's has his face sliced off is somewhat awkward; and asks if the dead people who just tried to kill him made good confessions earlier in the day. As you'd expect from a good sf writer, the implications of the setup have been thoroughly worked out. Which is not to say that there isn't a joke in it sometimes.
I glanced over at Maggie. "Say, Mags—if this doesn't work, when I get out of Purgatory do you mind if I look you up?"
She took my meaning. In Heaven there's no marriage or giving in marriage, but no one ever said that there isn't any fooling around.
I should also note that there's a backstory thread interwoven with the present-day chapters. It does actually have a point, so stick with it at least the first time through. (I admit that when the point arrived, I wanted to pat the character on the head and say, "Don't worry. It's all ineffable," but I suspect that the character hasn't read Good Omens.)
Finally, it has a nifty cover (big image at Amazon, which is being weird again and claiming it's not yet published.). At first glance, it looks like a fairly standard action/mystery cover: guy in shadow holding big guns against a vaguely flame-like background. Look closer, though: that's a priest's collar and a crucifix, not a tie, and a cathedral in the background.
The Apocalypse Door is a short, fast, tight book that's just a heck of a lot of fun. Go read it. (And then read the Mageworlds books too, while you're at it.)
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