Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: The Last Hot Time

The Last Hot Time, by John M. Ford, asks an interesting question: what would happen if the elves returned? According to the novel, the world wouldn't immediately turn into a magical realm of wonder and danger, and it also wouldn't remain completely bland and mundane. Instead, we would have the Elf lands and the human lands, and places in between where magic and technology exist. These in-between places, known as the Shade in the book, are often major cities, and one of those cities is Chicago, which is where the book takes place.

The Shade seems to have taken the heart of Chicago and made the city more like what it really is underneath. The book takes place in the modern day, but the Shade is full of speakeasies and casinos, with both human and Elf gangs fighting over them.

The protagonist, a paramedic named Danny Holman, gets mixed up with a kind-hearted gangster named Mr. Patrice and his bunch of oddball characters. They call him "Doc Hallownight" because nobody in the Shade goes by their real name. As Doc, he learns how to treat elf wounds with magical herbs, and he also learns something about courage, love, and terror. But enough about the cliches.

The story has quite a cast of characters all stuffed into a surprisingly sparse setting. Most of the action takes place either in Mr. Patrice's restaurant, the attached casino, or the rooms where various characters are staying. The supporting cast includes Cloudhunter, the mysterious elf, McCain, Mr. Patrice's loyal bodyguard, and Ginny, a bartender working for Mr. Patrice whom Danny falls for. Added to these are a dizzying array of secondary characters who are very difficult to keep straight.

The idea behind the novel is intriguing, and Ford explores a lot of interesting themes. I found that the tone shifted a lot through the book, going from mundane accounts of Danny's insomnia to nostalgic descriptions of people singing and dancing, to macabre scenes of terror where the bad guys torture innocent people for magic.

Naturally, there are bad guys, though the book doesn't tell us much about them. They're the bad guys because they're using people's suffering to generate magical power, and the protagonists have to stop them because they're also rival gangsters. The novel swerves suddenly into the action-filled parts and swerves back into the restaurant/casino lifestyle afterward just as quickly.

I think the thing that bothered me most about The Last Hot Time was that the author often left things unsaid, and I wasn't sure what he meant. I don't know if I was missing clues, or if the author meant for readers to fill in those parts for themselves. I'm not saying that everything has to be spelled out for the reader, but it's nice when we eventually figure out what's going on.

The novel was good, and I would recommend it, but if you're looking for an offbeat account of modern magic, check out Bad Magic by Stephan Zielinski first. Then, if you're still hungry for more, head over to The Last Hot Time. This review focuses on the negative, which is always easier to do than to talk about the positive, but I'll leave you with this quote from the novel that, to me, sums it up: "'Sides, didn't you always wanted to shoot a Tommy gun?"

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