Friday, 30 March 2012

Review | Costume Not Included - Matthew Hughes

Apologies for the brief slip in posting this week - I'm now back with the regular array of reviews and articles! Costume Not Included is the sequel to The Damned Busters, which I reviewed last year - which was an enjoyably unconventional novel. And as the title would suggest: yes, there are superheroes. Or rather, one superhero in particular - Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary with high-functioning autism. In The Damned Busters, said actuary accidentally make Hell go on strike: which was rather more devastating than it might seem. While negotiating the settlement - and discovering that the world is in fact a very messy novel being written by, apparently, God - Chesney manages to negotiate a clause of his own: a demon sidekick, Xaphan, and the powers to go crimefighting. And, to skip over the rest: a lot of other stuff happened.

In the sequel, Chesney faces new problems. Specifically, the Reverend Billy Hardacre is attempting to become a cowriter on the new edition of the world - it's a very literary theology - and unfortunately, that involves casting Chesney in the role of prophet. Chesney's new girlfriend, Melda, also wants in on the action: she's thinking more along the lines of corporate sponsorship. And rumours abound of a new draft of the book; the police are investigating Chesney's crime fighting persona; and many things are fairly stuffed (to summarise).

Unfortunately, with these additions,  Costume Not Included neglects one of the key aspects of the original title. Damned Busters was a flawed but enjoyable deconstruction with a quirky literary view of theology. Its sequel neglects that first part - the 'enjoyable'. Subplots, such as the struggle against the city's corruption, are left dangling as the focus turns solely to the 'new draft'. Which, as it turns out, really isn't sufficiently interesting to sustain a novel - particularly with the likeable Chesney's role slightly peripheral. Costume Not Included tries for a complex plot: subversions, schemes, and nested betrayals. It's only unfortunate that to the reader, it looks like a mess.

Long-time SF readers are likely wary of time travel: as a plot device, it's known for introducing plot holes as well if not treated carefully. Costume Not Included introduces this once more - and in my opinion, it doesn't work. Chesney's arrangement with Xaphan was previously powerful, but limited: he had the powers he asked for, but it was entirely possible to beat him for lack of those he didn't. (The pepper spray being a particularly amusing instance of this). But if your protagonist has the (apparently unlimited) ability to time travel as well? That was the sound of tension draining away.

This isn't to say Costume Not Included is all bad: far from it. Hughes writes as engagingly as ever; Chesney is a likeable if flawed protagonist, and the core concept did have potential - it's a quirkily interesting worldview, if nothing else. But the series suffers from the derailment of its key premise in this particular sequel; and the lack of a truly characterised female (Chesney's mother is severely flawed; and Melda's enthusiasm for sponsorship of crime fighting really says it all) lets the novel down. Original and concise, but this sequel wasn't for me.

7 comments:

  1. I thought this one looked like fun, but I've not read the first one so I gave it a miss...looks like maybe that was for the best! :)

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    1. Well, the first's a lot of fun: don't let me put you off that one. This one, though, just tries to run with too many concepts and plots at once, and just ends up forgetting some (something that particularly irritates me - one or two interesting subplots just get completely forgotten about, heh) and confusing others.

      Though, to be fair - when I read the first novel in a series, I generally insist on reading the whole. So I'd probably have ended up reading this anyway.

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  2. While I enjoyed The Damned Busters quite a bit, you could say it lost its key premise about halfway through as well. I'll get to this at some point, but it sounds like it's as I expected.

    That first bit of the first book was just excellent, I wish the rest lived up.

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    1. I'd have to agree there - but the sequel takes it much further. The problem is that it tries simultaneously to stick to the original premise as well - with some crime-related subplots - and mixing the two vastly different scales just didn't work for me. On the one hand... Destruction of the world, the usual. On the other, a few corrupt politicians. Not much of a contest. :P

      Totally agree. Have you read any of the other Angry Robot ARCs this time round? Evil Dark certainly isn't bad (though I loved Dead Harvest by Chris Holm)

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  3. Nope, but I'm excited for Blackbirds, The Alchemist of Souls, and Empire State (all of which I have). They're really having a great year. I'll have to check out Dead Harvest and Evil Dark too ya jerk. Like I don't have enough to read. :D

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    1. Absolutely! Haven't read Blackbirds, but Alchemist of Souls was my #1 read of 2012 until recently, when it got a few more contestants. And Empire State is great - I mean, pulp detectives, robots and metaphysics? :D

      Mwahaha... My plan to oversaturate you with reading material; eventually causing your implosion into a black hole. :P Evil Dark's pretty good, but not up to the others.

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