When I finished The Blue Blazes, I realized my rating system wasn’t going to cut it this time. Why? Because The Blue Blazes is beyond a five-star review. It surpassed my established system, and now I have to come up with a different way to rate it. Instead of doing the obvious—giving it six stars—because that would be the obvious next step, right?—I decided to create a special award, an award that I can give those books that are far better than five stars. So here it is, the Crystal Chandelier Award of Awesome:
In order to get this award, a book will have to render me speechless. It will have to make me cry. It will have to make me wish it were the last book ever I was going to read, because I can’t imagine anything topping this book. Am I being overly dramatic? Probably, but I know we’ve all been there before. We’ve all read books that change our lives, or at the very least, change our personal criteria for what makes a perfect book. All the elements come together—writing, plot, characters, pacing, emotional punch, ending—and for a while, we can’t find words to express how we feel. This isn’t the first book that’s done this to me, not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve read several books this year that should probably get this award. I may go back and give it to them at some point.
But today, I’m officially awarding the Books, Bones & Buffy Crystal Chandelier Award of Awesome for the first time to The Blue Blazes.
The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: May 28 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher
In a word: a fantastical world, perfectly descriptive similes, badass female characters that steal the show, and cool drugs. And did I mention it’s perfect?
So you might have guessed by now that I loved The Blue Blazes. I guess I could stop right here and say “Just read the damn thing, already!” But since I’m already typing away, I guess I’ll tell you why I love this book, and why this ought to be a primer that every aspiring author should read, an awesome example of what a well-written, well-paced story should look like. Some of you may have read this book, and maybe you didn’t love it the way I did. You might be thinking to yourself, “I don’t get it. What did she see in this book that I didn’t?” Reading is a personal experience. Not everyone will connect with this book the way I did. But in this review I want to talk about the awesome things that Chuck Wendig did that can’t be disputed. There are mad skills involved here, people. And I’m going to tell you about them.
The story is very complex, but I’ll try and give you a short synopsis: The setting is New York City, probably in the present day. Mookie Pearl is a hulking badass with a cleaver who works for the Organization, a suspect group of men who control the trade of a mystical drug called Blue, a powder derived from a mineral known as Cerulean that is mined in the tunnels far below the streets of New York. Mookie knows the truth about what really lurks below, since Blue opens the inner eye of those who use it, allowing them to see the monsters that sometimes come up through the tunnels from The Great Below.
But Mookie’s got problems. His grownup daughter Nora hates him and is trying to sabotage his business. (Plus, she wants him dead.) He hasn’t talked to his ex-wife Jess in who knows how long. And he just found out that the Boss, the guy who runs the Organization, is dying of cancer and only has six months to live. He’s named his grandson Casimir as his successor, but Casimir isn’t thrilled about taking over. And so he asks Mookie to find the elusive (and probably non-existent) drug called Death’s Head that might be able to cure the Boss. So begins Mookie’s journey into the Great Below to search for Death’s Head. But a series of unexpected events changes his plans, and Mookie must work with a motley group of gang members, drug addicts, and even his hateful daughter Nora in order to prevent the city from being taken over by the denizens from Below.
Here’s why I loved this book:
The characters. This story has some of the best female characters I’ve ever run across. Let’s start with Nora. I hated her in the beginning, because not only is she trying to double cross her father, but she poisons him in the first chapter! OK, so the poison only puts you to sleep, but still. She’s a pretty rotten girl. But then, later on, she isn’t all that rotten after all. She evolves. Wendig makes you hate her in the beginning, but by the end of the book, you feel for her. Another of my favorite characters is Skelly, a member of the girl-gang the Get-Em-Girls, that the author describes as:
Faux 1950s punk abounds. Hairnets and garter belts. Polka dots and cherry lips. A whiff of Rosie the Riveter meets the girls from Grease, with a heavy vibe of neo-future dystopian Bettie Page.
Skelly is like many of Wendig’s characters: tough, brave and kick ass on the outside, but soft and squishy on the inside. She and Mookie have quite the adventure together, and I loved every scene she was in.
And Mookie. What can I say? He’s a grumpy, sad and angry man who loves his daughter despite how nasty she is. But he has a heart of gold, and he’ll do anything to save the people he loves.
The world-building. This isn’t the first story I’ve read about an underworld that lies beneath us and is straining to make its way out (hello, Buffy!! Hellmouth!!) But the New York setting adds a gritty quality to the story that would be lost in any other city. Wendig’s detailed yet spare descriptions brought this world to life, from the dark tunnels filled with horrible monsters, to the town of Daisypusher where the dead hang out, to the deepest reaches of Hell, the Ravenous Expanse.
My favorite world-building element, however, has to be the drugs. In addition to the Blue Blazes, there are four other drugs that make up the Five Occulted Pigments, and they may or may not exist. Here’s a description of what it feels like to be Blazing:
It’s like being in a ship that’s just starting to capsize. Listing on an unforgiving ocean. Then: a wind of wet heat on his forehead – a hot breath – and at the edges of his vision the ripple of blue flame like a puddle of vodka lit with a Zippo, a ripple that fades fast, taking with it the scales that cover the eyes, that protect the mind, that hide the happy dumb people from the truth of what lies beneath.
The writing. Chuck Wendig has a way with words. I honestly think if I were to read passages of The Blue Blazes out loud, flowers would bloom at my feet. He’s got the best similes ever, and each one is better than the last. For example, here’s how he describes The Boss:
There he is. The Boss. Looking small and crumpled. Like an origami tiger on the seat that somebody sat on without realizing.
Not every reader will like his writing sytle—he uses lots of short, incomplete sentences—but in a story filled with graphic violence and death, his oftentimes beautiful prose is like a balm on a nasty burn.
The pacing. Wendig does several smart things to keep things racing along. First, he sends Mookie on a journey to locate Death’s Head. But along the way, Mookie gets sidetracked, and each new discovery leads him to another level of Hell, another secret hide-out, or another person who needs saving. His mission is still the same, but Wendig’s added many more layers to it. He also fills in some of the world-building gaps by adding journal entries from a man named John Atticus Oakes at the beginning of each chapter. These short passages often mirror what Mookie and his friends are about to confront, and they give more insight into the mysterious world of Below.
The emotional punch. Mr. Wendig tore out my heart and stomped on it. He made me hate characters, and then somehow made me love them. He promised things, then took them away. At the end of the book I felt as if I had been pummeled by the beefy fists of Mookie himself. It was an exhausting story, and yet I felt giddy at the end. And he just keeps things coming. You think the characters are out of danger, but then they’re not. And so it begins again. The end was heartbreaking, and yes, there will be a sequel.
The Blue Blazes is like a cabinet full of wonders—dark, damaged and twisted wonders—where the action never stops, the characters are always in danger, the writing is sublime, and emotions run high. Read this book. You won’t regret it.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Please note that the above quotes were taken from an uncorrected digital proof, and may differ from the finished version. You can purchase The Blue Blazes here and visit the author here.