James Brimstone doesn’t want to have anything to do with magic anymore. With the burial of his cruel mentor, all his remaining bridges to the world of hexes and demons have been burnt. He can start work as a private investigator and leave the supernatural behind him.
His first case, predictably enough, plunges him right back into it all. A actress with hideous facial scarring – scarring that tastes of magic – begs for his help. James Brimstone finds himself going up against Nazi occultists, monstrous snakes and rage-filled gladiators as he investigates the seamier side of Hollywood.
Hex-Rated is the first book in a planned urban fantasy series. It starts very much in medias res, and does lots of world-building through what’s left unexplained, but it is the first book. I checked.
I really wanted to like this book. The cover, the concept, the aesthetic – all of these are exactly my kind of thing. I love the vividness of pulp, and anything containing occult Nazis catches my interest; they’re such fun antagonists. So when I started reading Hex-Rated, I was inclined to view it very positively.
And I did find several positives. I liked the magic – it’s not as present as you’ll find in other books in the genre, and the protagonist’s distaste comes across well. Magic in Hex-Rated is strange and scary. Wizards don’t throw fire – they make perverted pacts with demons and carve sigils into living flesh. The essential elements aren’t original, but the presentation is.
I liked the setting as well. 1970s America is not something I’m very familar with, and its an unusual choice for urban fantasy. All the cultural references are slightly off from where I expect them – different songs on the radio and homeless veterans of different wars. I’m growing a little sick of urban fantasy that takes place in the early and undifferentiated 2000s. The 1970s setting of this book is both fresh and important, permeating the whole plot.
Unfortunately, I felt that the positives were outweighed by a significant negative. The issue is Brimstone himself; he’s very hard to like. In some ways he’s the standard urban fantasy protagonist – impoverished, worried about falling to the darkness, and surrounded by beautiful women. It’s a common archetype now, and it is a little hackneyed and objectionable. Normally though, the annoying parts of these characters are tempered by humility or incompetence, so the character ends up sympathetic.
Brimstone isn’t humble. He knows how good he is. He’s not particularly great at magic, but he rarely uses it – again, in this book, magic is a strange and dangerous thing. Brimstone solves most of his problems through either fighting or sex. And he’s very, very good at both of them.
I struggle to worry about a character who outclasses all of his opponents – regardless of size or magical assistance – with relative ease. Brimstone knows all the martial arts. He can disable his enemies’ limbs through the careful tapping of pressure points. He moves incredibly fast and can see in the dark. There’s little tension to the combat because he’s essentially unstoppable, and while the author does try and make situations seem desperate, it rings rather hollow – the reader has already seen how capable he is, so pretending he is in trouble doesn’t actually work.
There’s a lot of sex in the book. Quite a lot more than I was expecting. That’s fine – it’s not a problem – but some kind of earlier hint would have been nice. And once Brimstone starts having sex with people, he just doesn’t stop. By my (admittedly rough) count, he has sex with five different porn actresses only a few hours. It’s very detailed, and not really justified that well by the plot. Most importantly, it’s amazing; those of his partners who discuss it (at length) declare sex with Brimstone to be a transcendental experience. In case you were in any doubt over this, his internal monologue also repeatedly explains just how great he is in bed.
Characters must be flawed to be relatable. I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I’m not an unstoppable god of sex and violence. If I was, I wouldn’t spend all my time congratulating myself on that fact. Brimstone’s abilities are essentially superpowers, and he’s really smug about them. He even has the gall to lecture the reader on being respectful to women, and then immediately takes advantage of a distraught victim of a brutal attack or has a threesome with two strangers just to avoid having to tell the truth.
I get that pulp is about sex and violence. I’m okay with that. But there are limits. One of those limits, it turns out, is graphically describing sex with multiple porn stars while congratulating yourself on your thrusting technique. It’s gratuitous, and not in a fun way. Brimstone comes across as arrogant and self-obsessed, which makes it hard to root for him.
I wanted to like Hex-Rated; I really did. There’s a lot to like about it – the originality, the setting; even the prose, at points, is snappy and compelling. But it’s hard to enjoy a book when the protagonist needs shaking. If you are riding in someone’s head, it needs to be a head that’s interesting to be in. Not the head of a good person, necessarily, but one who you can sympathise with. With a toned-down protagonist and less emphasis on sex, I’d have enjoyed the book a lot more. As it is, Hex-Rated is a bundle of interesting ideas let down by the overall execution.
I received a copy of Hex-Rated free from NetGalley.com. I don’t believe that this has affected the impartiality of my review, but it would be dishonest not to tell you.