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WesternSFA
Hell to Pay
by Matthew Hughes
Osprey, $7.99, 366pp
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
One of the most eye-opening trilogies I've read in a long time; Matthew Hughes's stories about Chesney Anstruther, actuary turned crime-fighter, and his adventures in a world that may or may not be the product of God writing a novel to figure out what morality is, are unusual, enticing and rather eye-opening.

What's perhaps most interesting is that while they're very much a trilogy with a single narrative, each is a very different volume. Book one, 'The Damned Busters' (click here for review) was fundamentally about Anstruther, the unlikely deal he makes with the devil that has him front and centre, fighting crime and trying to figure out girls. The crime-fighting took a back seat in the second volume, 'Costume Not Included', click here for review) as Hughes focused on the meta angle of God writing his book and what happens when some of the characters in it figure out what he's doing. The most memorable characters are mostly not the ones we knew from the first book, they're people like Jesus Christ himself. Book three, 'Hell to Pay' is a much more conventional narrative that takes everything that's gone before it and rolls it into a story that seems all the more in depth because the previous book wasn't.

It's clearly the most substantial of the three books because it doesn't just wrap things up for the whole trilogy, it tells its story with the sort of depth that the other two books mostly avoid. To emphasize this, Hughes kicks off with 25 pages about a completely new character, then, as we rediscover the people we know, we find that they're discovering their own story arcs which collectively drive the book far further than the previous volumes were willing to go. This may be because Hughes hadn't discovered himself where it was going to end up, the meta angle clearly not just fiction.

While the second book in particular felt like Hughes simply channelled his characters onto the page and let them go where they would, this one feels more like he sat down and figured things out first so that pacing wouldn't be lost while his characters do their thing.

There are two key decisions that particularly drive this one.

The first belongs to Chesney Anstruther, as he wonders, in a non-sexual way, what became of the girl he was lusting after in the first book and how he can fix the vegetative state in which she found herself after an eye-opening trip to Hell. Many pieces fall into place once that direction is established, especially the character of Simon Magus, a magician plucked from a previous draft of God's novel in the same way that Jesus was last time around. Simon Magus, Jesus and Anstruther, himself, are characters whom God introduces to shake things up and Hughes has fun writing down what chaos they cause.

The second is a little different, because it's far less about Satan, who makes the decision to stay in Eden writing a new holy book with a number of characters who had less to say in this volume, and more about what that decision prompts. Hell is all about rules and those rules are presided over by the Devil, so when he isn't there to do that, things start to fall apart. One of my favorite subplots here involved Archduke Adramelek, a senior demon who decides to take over Hell during his master's absence, discovering in the process that he has free will. As Xaphan, the demon assigned to Anstruther, seems to know things that Adramalek feels he ought to know too, a conflict grows between them that involves a great deal of imagination.

While 'The Damned Busters' was an imaginative ride and 'Costume Not Included' was almost an aside for writers to bond with the material, 'Hell to Pay' is clearly a much better written book. Finding himself flung into a host of imaginative directions during its predecessors, Hughes finds a way to ground them here and tell a strong character-driven story that moves along very nicely indeed. It's a great way to finish off a trilogy, even if the wild inconsistencies in approach make reading the three together an oddly jagged experience.

We're given little stories to keep various characters busy, many of them coming alive better here than previously. I wondered particularly during the first book how Xaphan would progress and he has a lot to do here. The story arcs generated in the first couple of books find some momentum here that often take us to wildly imaginative places; not least, a prior creation of the Almighty which he populated with warrior dinosaurs called the Chikkichikk. We're given a strong balance between good and bad, not through Jesus and the Devil or even through the angels and demons who show up, but through Anstruther and Nat Blowdell, an important figure in the first book who finds his real purpose here in the third.

Everything is phrased, of course, with the theory of God's book firmly in mind and that is extended to its logical conclusion. Hughes had a contract to write three books with possible further ones in the series, but I think he found a good way to wrap it all up here. While sci-fi authors have to have imagination to survive, Hughes seems to have a cloud of it floating in the air above him, all ready to pepper him with the stuff he needs to write books. With this trilogy wrapped up, it's time to find some of his other work and see where other ideas took him. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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