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Costume Not Included
To Hell and Back Series #2
by Matthew Hughes
Osprey, $7.99, 384pp
Publication Date: March 27, 2012
I enjoyed 'The Damned Busters' so much that I had to immediately dive into its sequel, 'Costume Not Included' and I blitzed through it in two days. Click here for a review of The Damned Busters.

The first book in this series focused on Chesney Anstruther, an actuary with high-functioning autism. After accidentally summoning up a demon while building a poker table and refusing to sign away his soul, events lead to Hell going on strike and everything bad in the world turning to meh. As part of a solution brokered by a TV evangelist between Satan himself and a Throne of God, Anstruther gets to be a superhero for a couple of hours a day, aided by a demon called Xaphan who's a fanged weasel in a pin-stripe suit with a fondness for rum and Cuban cigars. You know: that sort of novel.

One of the ideas that helped drive the story was one conjured by the Reverend Billy Lee, that TV evangelist. Originally a lawyer, he became a novelist who eventually decided that he and the rest of us aren't real. We're merely characters in a book that God is writing, perhaps in order to understand morality. You see, characters write a novel as much as whoever has their name on the cover.

This idea becomes the central theme of book two. It's an enticing but dangerous concept. A writer is God to his characters because he creates them and he tells them what they're going to do, but he also allows them freedom to develop and they often change the story by taking it in directions the writer didn't expect. Matthew Hughes merely associates himself a little closer with God here by creating a world by writing a story about a world created in a story written by God, who is notably absent as a character. And people wonder why writers often have egos.

What's so fascinating here is that we can see that Hughes is going through what God is going through. This book is nowhere near a rerun of the original. His characters and ideas took him in new directions and we can even see certain points where this happens. Beyond being a rollicking ride, 'Costume Not Included' becomes a great insight into the process of writing.

For instance, Anstruther has already experienced being taken out of time's regular path, because time spent in Hell or talking with Satan is no time at all. So he asks questions of Xaphan and discovers that the demon can do certain things that might help him as his crime-fighting alter ego, the Actionary. So he saves a woman from being stabbed by her husband, who had technically already stabbed her when he first became aware of them, and Lt Denby, the cop investigating him, becomes convinced that he's a time traveller.

This new knowledge on the part of one character utterly changes the direction of the story for a while, and it leads to another similar moment. When the Actionary decides to join forces with Denby, he takes him back in time to see the events unfold that led to a famous cold case. They can't change anything, because it's already happened, but they can see whodunit and who else was involved. And, wouldn't you know… it all builds to the discovery that a few other characters in the story were right there up to their neck in it. As I was reading these chapters to find out who it would be, I could see Hughes writing these chapters to find out who it would be. It's irony that a story about characters who discover they're in a story and so decide to change that story ends up feeling strongly like it was also written by its characters.

Another addition that seems like it was generated by the story itself is the most prominent new character: Jesus Christ, the original preacher rather than the son of God he became when the Almighty discarded that early draft. In the meantime he's been stuck in a sort of 'Groundhog Day' scenario until he's hauled into this plot by characters who have become aware of what they are and don't want to suffer the same fate.

If Kevin Hearne worries about getting flak from the religious front for having Jesus sit down with Atticus, his 2,000 year old druid, over a fish 'n' chips dinner at Rula Bula, an Irish pub in Tempe, AZ, Hughes might just get crucified for how he turns our Lord and Savior into fiction. He's a major character here, who acts in a believable way for someone who hasn't been around for a couple of thousand years. Because his actions need to piss off Anstruther's prideful and acutely religious mother, Letitia, it will surely do the same to the other prideful and acutely religious among us, at least those who read Angry Robot books.

I devoured 'Costume Not Included' even quicker than I devoured 'The Damned Busters' but I did have a few concerns. One is that we get to see very little of the Actionary's crime-fighting this time around, inevitably given the change in direction of the story but strangely given that it was supposed to be the focus of the series and certainly remains the focus of the covers. Another is that the ending was far more insubstantial than the build-up to it. The last one is a chapter that, at this point in time, I wish Hughes had discarded as a draft and rewritten. Once I start into book three, 'Hell to Pay', I may change that opinion, but I haven't yet.

So, as a work of fiction this is flawed but enjoyable, but as a work of fiction about a work of fiction about characters who become aware that they're in that work of fiction and so attempt to change its direction by using insider knowledge to influence the writer of the work of fiction inside the work of fiction, it's a meta godsend, especially as Matthew Hughes clearly goes through what God is going through a level deeper. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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