Title: Hell’s Pawn
Author: Jay Bell
Cover Artist: Andreas Bell
Publisher: Jay Bell Books
Buy Link: Buy Link Hell’s Pawn
Genre: M/M fantasy romance
Length: Novel (274 pages)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Jenre
A delightfully imaginative fantasy novel with a strong and very likeable hero.
John Grey is dead… and that’s just the beginning.
Purgatory should have been a safe haven for souls that belong neither in Heaven nor Hell, but instead John finds himself in a corrupt prison, one bereft of freedom or pleasure. Along with his decedent friend Dante, John makes a brave escape, only to fall straight down to Hell and into the arms of Rimmon, a handsome incubus. John is soon recruited as Hell’s ambassador, visiting the afterlife realms of other cultures to enlist an army strong enough to stand against Heaven. As interesting as his new job is, John’s mind keeps returning to Purgatory and the souls still trapped there. Somehow John must stop a war he doesn’t believe in and liberate Purgatory, all while desperately trying to attract the attention of an incubus whose heart belongs to another.
Having read the previous book by this author, Something about Summer (reviewed here), I was keen to read another book by Jay Bell. Hell’s Pawn has a completely different feel to it, as it’s a fantasy rather than contemporary, but the same great writing and characterisation are present.
The opening of the book finds our hero John, standing looking out across the fog at the Golden Gate Bridge. He has no memory of how he got there but soon realises that, since his last memory is of driving his car into a tree, he must be dead. He’s taken to purgatory where he meets Dante. Purgatory is a dull place where souls have to earn points to escape. However, something seems off about this for John and it isn’t long before he finds himself embroiled in a plot the free the souls from purgatory along with the help of Dante and an alluring incubus, Rimmon.
I have to admit I had a slight wobble with the beginning. I’m not keen on ghost books and this story treads that line a little. Once I got over the fact that the hero is essentially dead, and set aside my scepticism about the book’s ideas of where we go when we die, then I found myself enjoying this book a great deal. One of my very few niggles is that the book has a bit of a slow start but once John escapes purgatory and enters hell, the pace speeds up and I was hooked from then on. The story rather reminded me of one of those Greek epics where the hero takes a journey in which he has to complete certain tasks in order to succeed. Certainly the presence of all the different gods from world religions helped to cement this idea. Part of the fun for me was seeing how the gods were portrayed and watching John wriggle out of various difficult situations.
It also helped that I liked John a great deal. He’s an intelligent guy but more than that he’s also sensible and a go-getter. I liked that he feels a constant sense of disorientation and wonder yet has the determination to succeed despite this. From the start he recognises that things aren’t right and instead of sitting back and just accepting how things are, he sets about to find out how he can change things. This of course leads him into a whole heap of trouble and that was the enjoyable part of the book! His relationship with Rimmon is both a romance and not, and those looking for a HEA are heading for a disappointment. I didn’t mind that aspect because the focus in the story is on the adventure plot with the romance being only secondary, and things work out OK for John in the end, even if it wasn’t in the way I expected.
Another part I enjoyed was the way the author used all the world religions and mythology to weave a vision of the afterlife. It was imaginative, sensitive, realistic and also a little reassuring. The different religions and how their own afterlives contrast and intertwine with those of other myths forms a backdrop to the action in the book. As he journeys to each realm, John encounters different characters from legend, myth and religion who either help or hinder him, as well as a particular human who will be familiar to fans of the author’s other books. All these characters have a role to play, but the constant is Dante and Rimmon who act as guides, advisers and occasional saviours. It was the complexity, not only in the story and setting but in the character of John that I found delightful and made this a book to be highly recommended.
I’ve already mentioned one of my niggles with the book – the slow start – and there is one other. John has a big secret (which I’m not going to reveal here) but when we discover what it is, it made me wonder why others with the same secret weren’t in the book. Maybe it was because of John’s unique restless character which made him unable to just accept purgatory, but I still thought it a little odd. Sorry for being vague, but I really don’t want to give away spoilers!
These couple of niggles were not enough to detract from was was a very enjoyable rollicking ride of a book. There’s a great mix of action, pathos, humour, love and camaraderie, all set in a unique series of worlds which are imaginatively described. Those readers who like fantasy books and are looking for something a bit different will enjoy Hell’s Pawn. I did and I shall be eagerly anticipating further books by Jay Bell in the future.