Mix together murder-mystery, a police procedural and urban fantasy and No More Heroes is what you get: an up-to-date fantasy fable set in an imaginary world of ‘what if’. It’s an attention-grabbing opening episode which establishes a solid central character – one of the few remaining Heroes of the title – whose job is rather more mundane than that name suggests. Part gumshoe detective, part supernatural sleuth, part parole officer, his task is to monitor the Villains who have turned over a new leaf in the city of Asphodel, where fictional characters go when their stories otherwise end. Inevitably, we join the story just as everything goes pear-shaped.
No More Heroes succeeds in establishing a credible and intriguing universe; one which the author doesn’t over-explain but where the background is gradually revealed as the plot progresses. And that plot fair scampers along – this is an all-action affair, barely pausing for breath between violent encounters with underworld thugs, the beasts known as Legion and magic-wielding weirdos. When Captain Jack does get a moment in between being beaten to a bloody pulp to slump in a heap in a jail cell, his battle becomes rather more personalised; a struggle between the creature he was in his original story and the man he is trying to become in this afterlife. Jack’s Shadow stalks him and offers aid, but the price of that assistance would be the end of all he’s tried to accomplish…
If that sounds pretty deep, then that’s because NMH has a thread of solid metaphysical angst artfully incorporated into the fabric of what initially appears to be a frolicsome spookynatural romp. You don’t have to engage with the darker side – skip the long dark nights of the soul and return to the carefully choreographed fights involving a genuine knight in shining armour (one of Captain Jack’s faithful sidekicks). But there’s more going on here than good guys slugging it out with mad men and bad monsters. Are we stronger when we accept our darker personas? Is it possible to triumph over adversity without calling upon our inner demons? Do the ends always justify the means? Captain Jack has something in common with Anakin Skywalker, it seems…
Dig deeper than that and you’ll find echoes of real-world social dilemmas; the parole and rehabilitation of criminals being at the core of this story. The social debate is quietly understated however, and doesn’t get in the way of the non-stop magical mystery investigation.
While the city-scape of Asphodel is original and inventive, author Nick Chapman sticks to familiar pulp fiction devices to push the action along and establish the protagonist in his environment. So we have trusty sidekicks, the feisty female love interest, an isolated hero up against bad guys and authority at the same time, an antagonistic colleague, a crime lord with a heart of gold, the hero being framed to sideline him from the true investigation, and a super-villain with a nya-har-har masterplan. There’s even a bar where the regular characters can seek sanctuary and re-group (and where we can catch up on any plot points we’ve missed).
In many ways, using established genre protocols like this helps to establish a new universe in the mind of the reader and provides useful signposts when we might be overwhelmed by a raft of unfamiliar characters and situations. I hope that in future episodes – the title suggests that more books in this series are on the way – Chapman feels confident enough to experiment a little more, hop off the beaten track and subvert our expectations. When his creativity is let loose then that’s when the weirdly wonderful characters spring off the page. I especially liked The Bear and the orange mage; the use of the River Styx and indeed the clever concept which supports this entire universe.
Chapman’s writing is crisp and accessible. He successfully portrays personalities and original situations with pithy prowess – you’ll find plenty of laconic one-liners in here and, no matter how dire the situation, there’s always a thread of humour to hand… be it bleak at times.
The editing and presentation on NMH are considerably better than you find on many debut novels from small publishers. The occasional grammatical glitch sneaks through (your and you’re being the most wince-worthy examples) but the text is otherwise admirably clean and suitably formatted for easy reading. For a first novel, NMH is an admirable package and it was refreshing to read an introductory episode which satisfactorily concludes an entire adventure – no cliff-hanger here; we get an entire story in this one volume although it’s obvious that there’s more to come.
If I have one major criticism of NMH then it is the cover design. Although it makes perfect sense once you have read the book, that sludgy brown design did nothing whatsoever to entice me into turning the first page. It’s also somewhat misleading – that illustration suggests a sword-n-sorcery quest epic set in mediaeval times, not a thoroughly modern urban fantasy which takes place entire on the meaner streets of a fantastical city.
So if you’re hankering after old-style Harry Dresden (sorry; that comparison was always going to be inevitable), then add No More Heroes to your reading list.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
No More Heroes is available as a paperback and ebook on Amazon