I put off reading these for a while; they seemed to be shoddy rip-offs of Jim Butcher. I don’t mind that particularly – Dresden owes a lot to Constantine and so on – but the “shoddy” bit made me less than enthused. Add to that, druids just seem inherently less interesting than wizards, and I anticipated it being less fire-throwing and more hippy balance magic.
In an unguarded moment last week, bereft of better fiction, I bought Hounded. The books kept showing up in my Amazon queue, and it seemed that the quickest way to get them out of there was to read one and find out if I wanted the next one.
Atticus is an ancient (most of recorded history ancient) druid now living in the US. He runs a bookstore, and occasionally receives visits from the Morrigan. Irish legends start turning up to kill him, and he investigates. Events unfold, conspiracies are uncovered, battles take place.
He doesn’t throw fire – magic is mostly healing and binding things, summoning up spirits from the earth to help. Most of the time, he fights hand-to-hand anyway. Hearne manages to avoid dipping into placid nature worship; Atticus is old, and his relationship to nature is much more “red in tooth and claw” than “great mother”ish.
I was pleasantly surprised by how unlike the standard Urban Fantasy protagonist he was; the magic is, of course, different, but the main dissimilarity is that Atticus is actually quite polite. He observes guest rights and seems to be generally mild-mannered – there is very little bullishly charging through magical protocols, which is one of the genres most common conventions. It was quite refreshing.
The book is first person, so you end up steeped in Atticus’ narration. It’s dry, conversational, often humorous. You also get a lot of asides – in the past two thousand years, Atticus has been everywhere and done everything. Hearne plays on that a lot, and you get mentions and comparisons to Genghis Khan et al. It’s easy to read, it’s quite fun to read.
As the main character is a druid, the main mythology used is Celtic, though other pantheons do feature. I’m not too familiar with Celtic ideas, which is a positive; it makes me less likely to hate books using them: I can’t tell if they’re butchering the concept. It totally wrecks my suspension of disbelief when authors trash established ideas without reason or justification – obviously, all such legends undergo significant rewriting and mixing, but there is a point where it becomes clear that they don’t have a clue what they are doing, and should just have picked a different monster. With Celtic stuff though, I know just about enough to recognize the names and big ideas.
I did enjoy the book, though it has a couple of issues. The first one is power. All series up the stakes from book to book – it is hard not to. However, Atticus starts out book one in combat with the gods themselves. He is already stuffed with power and experience; it is difficult to see how he can have meaningful challenges in later books. Already, I didn’t feel that much worry for him: he is so loaded with awesome that he doesn’t come across as an underdog at all. It’s hard to immerse yourself in an easy fight, and it is hard to find appropriate challenges for a perrenial victor with a magic sword.
Women are the second false note: all of them, with one geriatric exception, are not just peerlessly beautiful but also attractive and attracted to Atticus. Character after character is introduced, described in lavish, lustful detail, and then makes a pass at him. This isn’t to say that they aren’t strong characters, with distinct personalities: they are. But first and foremost, women seem to be fanservice, put there to add sex appeal and make Atticus seem almost more awesome than he already is. I know that such pulp aesthetic is a trope within the genre, and I don’t really mind it that much, but Hounded seems more blatant than, to go with the obvious example again, The Dresden Files are. It would be nice to vary it a little – have an unattractive major female character, or one who isn’t given lashings of seduction.
Those two issues drop the tension and the subtlety of the book, pushing it more into wish fulfillment – this fantasy novel is very definitely a power fantasy. And as a power fantasy, it is fine, even good – as above, I did enjoy it. It isn’t going to speak any great truth about the human condition, but so little actually does. If you want something exciting and fun and funny, this is a good bet.