fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDead Harvest by Chris F. HolmsDead Harvest by Chris F. Holm

Chris F. Holm’s first novel, Dead Harvest, is supernatural noir at its best. Sam Thornton, who is as surely named for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade as he is for the Hebrew judge of the Bible, is the best sort of hero to serve as the basis for a series (THE COLLECTOR): despite being damned, he still has a strong sense of right and wrong, and refuses to do wrong whenever he has the option.

The novel is based on one occasion when Sam has that option. His job is to collect damned souls to speed them on their way to their eternal punishment. His boss, Lilith (whom he always calls “Lily,” which she hates), has assigned him to collect the soul of Kate MacNeil, who has just killed her entire family. There is no doubt about this, because she tortured her mother until the police showed up, when she ended it by slitting her mother’s throat in their full view. But when Sam reaches into her chest to collect her soul, he is nearly blinded by the bright white light of her innocence — and more, he learns that something took possession of her body to commit those murders.

Sam doesn’t know how this could have happened, but he does know that if an innocent soul is damned to hell for all eternity, it will set off a battle between angels and demons that will destroy the world. He kidnaps Kate from the hospital in hopes of giving himself time to figure out what to do. That is adventure enough, but things get much messier very fast. First, Sam’s superiors in the realms of hell (hell being situated here on earth, as well as everywhere else; it’s a condition, not a place per se) try to convince him to complete his task. Next, an angel — one of the seraphim, no less — attempts the same bit of persuasion. But when all manner of persuasion fails, things start to get ugly very quickly, and they get uglier by the second.

Sam is one of those guys who doesn’t give up, no matter what. Send angels and demons after him; bash him with a car; stab him with a knife; he still won’t go down. In the midst of a whirlwind of action, Sam is also trying to figure out why anyone would want him to collect a soul that doesn’t warrant damnation, a thorny problem causing Sam — and the reader — to consider the questions of free will and eternity.

Dead Harvest will make you stretch your lunch hours and stay up far later than is good for you, as the action propels the book along at a good clip. And the heavier philosophical and theological questions posed will keep you thinking about Sam and his universe long after you’ve turned the last page. I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, The Wrong Goodbye, which is scheduled for publication in September.

One more note: I thought I was completely over the “distressed” cover motif, but this cover, apparently the brainchild of Marc Gascoigne at Angry Robot and executed by a group called Amazing 15, is really a lovely example of the genre. It looks like a beat-up old paperback of 1940s vintage. Very nicely done.

~Terry Weyna

SFF book reviews Chris F. Holm Dead HarvestTerry’s review of Dead Harvest, by Chris F. Holm, certainly intrigued me, and when I came across the book with its clever 1940s cover, I had to get it. Then it was “strap in, and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times,” as I devoured this fast-paced, convoluted thrill ride.

Sam Thornton is a Collector, a damned soul who is sent back to earth to collect other damned souls and deliver them to Hell. His handler is a beautiful demon named Lilith — yes, she’s that Lilith — who gives him a simple assignment. He is to collect the soul of a teen-aged girl in New York who is guilty of the torture murder of her entire family. There isn’t any doubt that she did it. She cut her mother’s throat in full view of the police who broke in to stop her. Sam figures this is a quick and easy assignment, yet he is literally stunned by the blinding purity of the girl’s soul when he touches it. The rules say that an innocent soul cannot be delivered to Hell, but how can this girl Kate be innocent? Sam and Kate go on the run. Both demons and angels want the girl dead, and her unrestrained violence towards demons makes Sam doubt himself at times, especially when demons themselves are telling him that she has him fooled.

The action is nearly nonstop as Sam and Kate try to evade the NYPD, demons, angels and everyday muggers. In the best detective noir tradition, Sam is lied to and doubled-crossed by informants and colleagues. As Sam struggles to keep Kate alive and work out the puzzle of the murders, Holm also unfolds the poignant story of how Sam became a Collector. Sam’s fall from grace, related by Sam in an unsentimental manner, is tragic because he is a good man in a desperate situation, manipulated into doing evil.

Kate never read like a teenager to me. I would put her age at twenty-six or twenty-seven just from the way she speaks. It doesn’t matter. She’s the damsel in distress, the Dame with a Problem, and her age isn’t important to the story. Holm stays true to detective noir throughout the story and burnishes it with Sam’s dry, sardonic first-person delivery. He gets extra points from me for coming up with the most unusual and innovative demon-killing weapon ever.

I was left with a few questions about the world-building after I put the book down, but they never occurred to me while I was reading Sam’s battle with a demon in a crowded antique warehouse or walking with Kate and Sam through the ruins of Grand Central Terminal, victim of an angelic attack. The book held my interest and made me stay up too late to finish it. Brian Vander Ark reads Dead Harvest for Brilliance Audio. His voice was a bit too young for the world-weary Sam, but he has a good sense of drama and pacing, and he did a fine job with the other characters; Pinch, Anders and Kate. He gives Lilith a wonderful, sinister purr. Audio book readers should enjoy this interpretation.

Holm’s title (a take on Hammett’s Red Harvest) and the title of the upcoming book, The Wrong Good-bye, conveys his commitment to supernatural noir. Bring on Book Two! I don’t want to wait.

~Marion Deeds

The Collector — (2012-2013) Publisher: Meet Sam Thornton, Collector of Souls. Sam’s job is to collect the souls of the damned, and ensure their souls are dispatched to the appropriate destination. But when he’s dispatched to collect the soul of a young woman he believes to be innocent of the horrific crime that’s doomed her to Hell, he says something no Collector has ever said before. “No.” File Under: Urban Fantasy [ Souled Out | Damned If You Don’t | Collector Mania | On The Run ]”

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  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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