Watt O’Hugh Underground
by Steven S. Drachman
Reviewed by Adam Armstrong
Trilogies are a funny thing. An author either has an idea that is so big it can’t be contained in one book or they aren’t quite finished with an idea or character after one book. Some authors can just run with a character and crank out one good book after another, think Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Others come out with a strong opening and then fall flat on the second one. The second book, after releasing a great first book, is always the great test of writing ability.
We left Watt O’Hugh at two points in time at the end of the last of novel. In one instance he is at the end of his life writing his memoirs. In the other when he is younger, he has lost more than one person he thought was important to his life and now makes various plans of vengeance while attempting to drink himself to death. These are the same two points we pick up the second novel at. A young woman, Hester Smith, knocks down the younger, angry, drinking O'Hugh's door and asks him for help and in return she offers him vengeance. Drachman does a bit of catch-up here but not so much that a new reader will get bogged down in it.
Hester needs Watt to help her rob a train. Though she claims that they can get rich from the robbery it’s not money Hester is after. The train is full of people from Sidonia, whom O’Hugh would like to see every last one of die. And the people are all protecting a secret.
Hester isn’t the only one looking for the secret. The bad poet Yu Dai-Yung is now in America looking for something as well. What he lacks in ability to write poetry he more than makes up for in his gunslinger talents. Yu finds a guide in the last of Peking Indians. Together the two may have to travel through hell to find their answers.
Watt O’Hugh finds himself wealthy with a new love in his life and in a place where time stands still. He could stay there forever. But he is still driven to go into the belly of the beast and confront his sworn enemies. With Billy Golden’s help, Hugh sets off with a new face to Sidonia. There he will either find his vengeance or his death.
While Drachman’s first novel, The Ghosts Of Watt O’Hugh, was fantastic, I felt he stumbled a bit with this one. Splitting the narrative between O’Hugh and Yu felt like a mistake. While Yu’s story was interesting and quite funny at times, it felt like a distraction from the main story. Also we are being told this story from O’Hugh as an old man and readers have to wonder how he had such insight into Yu’s life along with his thoughts. At times the viewpoint shifts to other characters but there is generally an explanation given.
Though it was a stumble, it in no way makes the novel bad. We are still treated to realistic, albeit very quirky, characters as they try to navigate through their problems. O’Hugh’s abilities aren’t as magical to the reader this go round because we were already introduced to them in the previous novel. However, how he uses them is interesting at times: such as going to the bottom of the ocean in Pangaea at the beginning of time to drown his pursuers. Or going to the mid-1980’s for a one-night stand, only he relives the moment time and again as his lover thinks it only happens once.
Taking Yu Dai-Yung from a bumbling poet to a master gunslinger, felt an odd fit as well. He is an aristocratic poet that can fight and kill without blinking an eye. This probably would have killed the novel if we weren’t given such an interesting quest and such a bizarre sidekick in John Dead-man, the last of the Peking Indians. While the beautiful and sometimes surreal descriptions brought the novel back up to a higher level the abrupt ending left a bad taste in my mouth. I know that there is another part but I never liked the “if you want to know how the story ends buy the final installment,” –type ending. The novels are modeled after pulp novels (only the writing is much better) that would have an ending like this, but it leaves readers without a sense of closure.
If you’re a fan of the first book this is a must. If you’re not a fan of the first book it means you haven’t read it yet and need to go pick up a copy. I’m looking forward to the third installment where we find out Watt O’Hugh’s triumph or failure over his enemies.
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