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WesternSFA
Walking in the Midst of Fire
by Thomas E Sniegoski
Roc, $7.99, 368pp
Publication Date: August 5, 2014
Sometimes it seems like every novel with any connection to the sci-fi/fantasy genres is part of a series nowadays. For this one, which merges the hardboiled detective genre with the explorations of the realm of angels that Thomas E Sniegoski began back in 2003 with his young adult series, 'The Fallen', I came in at book six. Roc have published one of his Remy Chandler series every year since 'A Kiss Before the Apocalypse', his first solo adult novel in 2008.

Chandler is a detective working the streets of Boston, his name an homage to Raymond Chandler and his dog Marlowe's an homage to his most famous creation, Phillip Marlowe. Yet he has a history rather different from the norm, as Remy was formerly Remiel, an angel of the host of Seraphim who fought on the side of God against the renegade Lucifer Morningstar. He left the heavenly host for what could easily be described as 'creative differences' but not to join the enemy, merely to opt out of the battle entirely.

With no knowledge whatsoever of books one to five or the novella, 'Noah's Orphans', that fits within their chronology, I wondered how much sense 'Walking in the Midst of Fire' would make for me. What I found was that the novel works well as a standalone piece, albeit one that is clearly part of a series. Even having devoured this book, I couldn't tell you which of the main characters appear in its predecessors with any sense of surety. Some are obvious, but others may well appear here for the first time.

Perhaps my lack of background with these characters is why it took me a while to figure out which of the stories in play was the one at the book's core. It would seem that these novels have overseen a gradual escalation of the tensions between Heaven and Hell and we're now at the closest we've been to outright war. The slightest thing could easily tip the balance towards conflict, which would mean armageddon for us, and that means that the apparent murder of General Aszrus, one of the most important generals in God's army, must be hidden from Heaven and solved as quickly as possible.

Remy is a strong character, one that would appear to be doing well six books into his series. He's a natural focus for us readers as he's, at once, the most human of the non-human characters we meet, and someone with major powers to bring to bear. Being notably long-lived and having had such a major involvement in prior events of importance doesn't hurt either, as he serves as an able link between historic events and those in the present day.

He's also a constant reminder that angels in Sniegoski's world are not what we might expect. We meet many more who represent the side of Heaven than that of Hell but their attitudes and actions are often those we might expect from the other side. Remy aside, angels from above tend to be arrogant and often outright dismissive of humanity. After Remy, the most decent might just be the fallen angel, Francis, who is now working for Lucifer Morningstar himself.

Like Francis, the other major characters are interesting, if not quite as strong. I got a particular kick out of a relatively minor character by the name of Squire, who's a hobgoblin with a sassy attitude. Given that Sniegoski is obviously drawn to write about angels, I wonder why he writes them in such a way that their most memorable moments see them getting royally pissed off by Squire. Some are less strong because they're clearly aimed at being recurring characters, even if they haven't been thus far, such as Linda, Remy's new girlfriend, with whom he is beginning to get serious.

The villains of the piece are far less obvious than the heroes, though, as I've mentioned, the line between good guy and bad guy is a particularly blurry one here. The most prominent consistent bad guy is Simeon, introduced in the prologue, who grows neatly as the book runs on, both within present events and a succession of flashbacks to earlier centuries. He first dies in 26 AD, but is brought back to life by Jesus of Nazareth, just to see if he could. Being shown the embrace of all of creation in death then being ruthlessly pulled back from it turns him to the dark side and his plans are centuries in the making.

The mystery at the heart of the story progresses neatly enough but it's too relentless. While we certainly don't see the plans in motion clearly for a while, there are few red herrings, so we spend a lot less time puzzling as we do merely waiting for truth to be revealed. Similarly, the settings are enticing ones, much more adult than might be seen in an episode of 'Supernatural' or presumably in Sniegoski's long running young adult angel series, 'The Fallen.' However, they are few and far between and are described more sparingly than the characters that occupy them.

The biggest problem the book has may be how clearly it becomes that it's part of a series. While it does work well enough as a standalone novel, the framework Sniegoski has set is inherently episodic. The battle between the forces of good and evil is an age-old one, after all, and we don't expect any resolution in a timeframe small enough to fit into a modern day series with a number of humans with regular lifespans involved.

Thus, we get to read about the unending shenanigans behind this conflict rather than the conflict itself. It wouldn't surprise me to find that all six books follow Remy's attempts to keep the heavenly doomsday clock from striking midnight. I wonder how many of the characters span those six books too, their story arcs reaching far beyond the confines of this volume. Some are obvious.

Of course, the biggest success of the book is that I'd like to find out. I'm guessing that starting here provides spoilers for earlier books, but that's inevitable. Starting a series on book six is never recommended behavior, but this feels more like the sixth episode in a TV show's first season than the entirety of season six. It ought to be easy to go back to the beginning and find out what led up to this one. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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