The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig – Review
Six weeks ago I’d never heard of Chuck Wendig. Then someone suggested I follow him on Twitter for his writing advice. Who was this un-heard-of person dispensing writing advice via Twitter that I should be so interested? (This, of course, from the ego-center of my own puny universe.) But I went ahead, and right-away saw that he was published by Angry Robot. Pretty good creds, so I decided to test him out. I didn’t want to start from the beginning, though. I wanted to see who, writer-wise, Chuck Wendig is now. So, thanks to an advance copy of his forthcoming novel, The Blue Blazes (thanks, Angry Robot), I was able to find out. Suffice it to say that Chuck Wendig has moved from one of the many Un-Heard-Of-So-Don’t-Care seats in the back of my brain to occupying a spot in the far less populated Important-Writers section up front.
He’s imaginative, funny, profound, tough, and poetic all at once.
So, The Blue Blazes is essentially a crime story—or, shall we say, an underworld story. An underworld journey. Dante meets The Sopranos. In Wendig’s New York City, the criminal underworld is aligned to the spiritual underworld, if you can call slobbering goblins (street slang gobbos) who use their tongues to lay eggs under your skin spiritual, that is. The conceit is, all those creatures you’ve ever imagined living underground actually do live underground, and sometimes above ground; it’s just that blinkered folks like you and I can’t see through their disguises. However, if we could get our hands on some of the blue powder that gives the novel its name and rub it into our temples, we, too, could see through the veil and behold the monstrosities that walk among us.
That’s where the crime bosses come in. Blue, Cerulean, The Blue Blazes (some of its many names) is rare, hard to get, and addictive. It’s mined from down below, and the bosses control the flow. The protagonist, Mookie Pearl, works as muscle for the most powerful boss in the city. But simply calling Mookie muscle is like calling The Hulk kinda strong. Wendig describes him as “a brick shithouse made of a hundred smaller brick shithouses”. He’s “a man whose bones are wreathed in fat and gristle and muscle and sealed tight in a final layer of scar-tissue skin.” I picture him being unable to fit through my front door, even if he ducked and turned sideways. (He’d probably just bust through the wall.)
Mookie knows the underworld, both above and below. He can fight off the hoards of gobbos and knows where to procure the Blue. But problems arise when the boss’s health begins to fail and the anticipated power-vacuum gives every gang in New York the idea of making a move. Mookie gets caught up in the violence of the political power-play in ways he’d never have anticipated (even his own daughter guns for him), and must journey to parts of the underworld rarely, if ever, seen by man, in search of substances of colors other than blue, which may or may not exist and which may or may not grant powers such as resurrecting the dead and berserker rage.
Yes, this is all imaginative as, well, hell. And, yes, Mookie is an entertaining character to follow—brutal, yet surprisingly tender; both hero and schmuck. (At one point, all we want is for him to be able to eat the food he keeps comically getting taken away from. He’s practically got a gourmet’s palette when it comes to charcuterie.) But what makes this novel special is Wendig’s style. This is punchy crime-writer prose with figurative detours that suggest Raymond Chandler is actually a shambling zombie holed up in Wendig’s office whispering dark and sickening tales of the otherworld in his ear. Just a few examples:
“… the years chewing at his joints like rats eating wires.”
“Voice like dry leaves in a closing fist.”
“The kid hurries up to the front like a couple mop handles falling out of a hallway closet.”
“… a chill runs over his hide like a tide of spiders.”
You get the picture.
There’s so much more. I like the way Wendig ties his underworld in not only with the expected hell, but every other underworld the human race has ever imagined, from Gimkodan and Hades to Naraka and Tartarus, thus setting his story into the context of world mythology and comparative religion. And we get a kind of Marco Polo account of its largely unexplored depths through ongoing glimpses of chapter-heading diary entries by one John Atticus Oakes, Cartographer of the Great Below, who may or may not have existed and whose journal may or may not be real (though we suspect it is).
And after all this, I feel like I’ve only peeked beneath the upper-crust of this novel. We will see more of Mookie Pearl, the Get Em Girls, the wandering shades of Daisypusher and the Hungry Gods. This story is far from over. Lucky us. While I wait for the next in the series, I’ll go back and check out his Miriam Black series. Watch for their reviews here.
Oh, and you can follow Chuck Wendig on Twitter. He really does dispense some useful advice for writers, now that you’ve heard of him.
The Blue Blazes publishes on 28th of May by Angry Robot.