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                Shortly after I made the recently mentioned decision to read every book that I could get my hands on for less than $2, I went on a shopping spree with a good friend of mine. She was specifically looking for some classic fantasy stuff – Conan and Elric, in particular. We went to every used bookstore in town, and I just looked around while she dug deep. I grabbed books I knew to be by writers who I didn’t like but did enjoy – Andre Norton being the prime example – and lifted the cover to check the current price. $2, take, $1, take, $8, put back on the shelf.

 

                Partway through this process, I saw a book with a title intriguing enough that I had to pull it off the shelf. The back cover had it in my “buy” pile before I had even looked at the penciled in price. The book was guaranteed to be so ridiculous that, whether it was awful or not, whether it was expensive of cheap, I absolutely had to own and read it.

 

                This book was Heroes in Hell.

 

                Heroes in Hell is set in a version of the Christian underworld which is essentially the real world, but infinitely worse; where the dead of all time periods come at completely unpredictable relative times, with seemingly infinite ways and opportunities to die, but few (or none) of them permanent. The plot Heroes in Hell vaguely traces a revolution against Satan led by Che Guevara, who, by Satan’s estimation, seems to get off on failed revolutions. In the process of telling this story, the novel explores this Hell and the politics of its denizens. Caesar is a leader of the damned, living a relatively comfortable life with Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Dante, and Machiavelli. Dante claims to be trying to recreate his Divine Comedy, so that he can find out what he wrote that got him damned. Ernest Hemmingway is a heavy drinker who loves to fight – as ever. Napoleon is living in an approximation of Suburbia, closely studying the laws of Hell to find a loophole out, when he is forced to take his new neighbor The Duke of Wellington into his home. That Napoleon/Wellington story is probably the high point of this volume, as a highly surreal rendition of The Odd Couple. In Hell.

 

                And here’s the thing. All of this absurdity is really well written. The book, despite its ridiculous, befuddling concept, manages to take itself seriously, without taking itself too seriously. The prose is solid, the dialogue believable; nothing is ever too heavy handed, and the world of its Hell is clearly terrible, an intolerable place, but not in a traditional Boschian way. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story for you; Machiavelli’s role is brilliant, but much of the brilliance lies in reading how it develops.

 

                Read this book. You will probably be able to find it for around 2 dollars anyway.  It’s the first in a series, and I intend to go find out the rest of them soon.

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