Monday 26 May 2014

Costume Not Included by Matthew Hughes, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

When last we left him, Chesney Arnstruther had set himself up as a superhero – The Actionary – found himself a nice girlfriend, Melda McCann, and caused significant problems for the bad guys, up to and including Lucifer himself. It was trouble twixt heaven and hell that got him his super-powers in the first place, a by-product of a negotiation between the two post-mortem destinations. That all happened in The Damned Busters, book one in the To Hell and Back series, reviewed in #37. Costume Not Included (Angry Robot, ebook, 4432ll) is book two, and it continues from the first book pretty much directly.

Chesney’s “weasel-headed, sabertooth-fanged” demon Xaphan is now much friendlier, having grown accustomed to the benefits that come with working for the Actuary. Chesney’s over-protective mother Letitia has taken up with the Reverend Billy Lee Hardacre, a top-rated television preacher who plans to announce The Actionary as the prophet of a new era. Crime rates are low, thanks to the city’s new superhero, and so Chesney ends up investigating a cold case, the disappearance of a journalism student nine years ago, which quickly blows hot.

As with the superheroics of the first book, the most entertaining element of Costume Not Included might be considered a spoiler, were it not shown in Tom Gauld’s excellent cover illustration. Yes, that’s Jesus typing on a laptop at the bottom (or at least one version of him), brought into the story by Chesney to write a new Bible. Hardacre thinks the universe is a book being written by God, and maybe he’s right – trouble is, this Jesus comes from an earlier draft. It’s amusing to see how the conversation between Jesus and a modern-day television evangelist might go.

If you’re a fan of the TV show Community, imagine how Abed might cope with almost infinite power in a world of angels and demons and you’ll have a good sense of this book. If the Actionary dangled me over the edge of a tall building, I’d say whatever he wanted me to say. If he created a safe environment for me to express my feelings honestly, I’d admit I prefer this writer’s far future science fantasy to these modern day superheroics, but I enjoyed this book more than the first, perhaps because all the pieces of the world were in place and the author could just start playing with them.

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