fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book review John Shirley Bleak HistoryBleak History by John Shirley

In the not-too-far-off future New York, John Shirley has created a world that’s not too different from our own. Except that in Bleak History, the spirit world (The Hidden) has become a force that manifests itself through various “gifted individuals,” giving them special abilities.

Gabriel Bleak, an ex-Army Ranger now turned bounty hunter, is one of these. Ever since leaving the Army, Gabe has been under the watchful eye of a shadowy government agency that tries to use this hidden world and its gifted people in its anti-terrorism agenda. They want Gabe Bleak, and they’ll do just about anything to get him.

Most of Bleak History’s plot concerns the pursuit of our hero, and while the chase goes on, the story unravels in some expected — and unexpected — ways. The characters are well developed and their motives are understandable. Gabe’s inner struggle with his conscious is particularly well portrayed.

Gabe’s powers make for some great action: rooftop leaping, gun play, and explosions! Mix in all kinds of help from the denizens of The Hidden, and John Shirley’s ability to draw an image in your head, and you’ve got a book that’s quite addicting. The pacing of Bleak History is perfect for a Hollywood film which, according to John Shirley’s website, may be in the works. In print form, however, the plot flowed smoothly for the first 90% of the book and then ends rather suddenly. That’s not enough to reduce my overall enjoyment, but I wanted Bleak History to be about half again as long — I liked it that much.

Bleak History delivers on many levels in a way that reminds me of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front. John Shirley’s got something special here, with loads of promise. I think these characters have more stories to tell, so I’d love to read more books set in this world.

I highly recommend John Shirley’s Bleak History to any urban fantasy fan who enjoys a straight forward plot, interesting characters, and a fast pace.

Bleak History — (2009) Publisher: CLASSIFIED: APPARENT SUPERNATURAL. Subject: Gabriel Bleak. Status: Civilian. Paranormal skills: Powerful. Able to manipulate AS energies and communicate with UBEs (e.g. “ghosts” and other entities). Psychological profile: Extremely independent, potentially dangerous. Caution is urged… As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or “skip tracer,” in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they’ll gain access to the Hidden — the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel’s got other ideas. With agrowing underground movement called the Shadow Community — and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings — Gabriel’s about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.


  • Justin Blazier

    JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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