I don’t always agree with Nick Mamatas or his views on humanity, but I think he is one of the most interesting writers working right now, and Sabbath (2019), while it’s strange, is definitely interesting. The story behind the story is interesting and a little strange too. Sabbath (2019) is a novelization of a graphic novel called Sabbath: All Your Sins Reborn, by Matthew Tomao, which does not seem to be well known or much admired on the internet.
Mamatas writes a book that has some wonderful, hallucinatory prose, gallons of gore, a passel of severed heads, attack poodles, several actiony set-pieces and social observations as astringent as shot of cold gin. To crib a line from the Buffy-spinoff Angel, who doesn’t love severed heads?
Hexen Sabbath is an eleventh-century British warrior, fighting against the Danes. When he is killed on the battlefield, Sabbath encounters a powerful being who says he is Abathar, the angel of judgment. Sabbath is pulled out of hell (of which, at first, he has no memory) and sent to 2016 New York City, with a weird interactive tattoo and a mission to kill and behead the seven deadly sins, who take corporeal form every seven hundred seventy-seven years. Masquerading as humans, they try to destroy the world. Sabbath must stop them, and if he succeeds, he’ll be freed from hell and given a place in heaven.
Sabbath arrives in New York naked except for the cross he is wearing and the tattoo that is a map of the locations of the sins. He is weaponless. Quickly he finds a young Russian-American gallery owner, Jennifer, to help him, and with remarkable ease he’s purchased an eleventh-century sword. This is after he mugs a group of clubbers for their clothing. Then Sabbath sets off on his murderous quest.
Clearly, part of the fun here is going to be Mamatas’s take on the seven deadly sins in the twenty-first-century world. The first two, Sloth and Lust, are stereotypical. Lust is well-written and gets to mouth some nice words about feminism and misogyny, but really isn’t a take on Lust, as far as I can see. I wasn’t convinced by Wrath either, but their duel, in a cage fight run by Wrath, was well-choreographed and exciting. Mamatas hits his stride with Greed, and the two headliners of the cast of sins are Envy and Pride. Envy gets second-billing; Envy always gets second-billing; Envy is never quite good enough. Best description of Envy ever.
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s entanglement with a certain rich, spoiled, germ-phobic real estate developer who is running for President becomes more fraught, and Jennifer is drawn more deeply into Sabbath’s quest against her will.
Clearly choices were made to keep this short, violent, fast-paced novel on track, so, for instance, Abathar provides Sabbath with a direct-to-brain download of anything and everything he needs to know about modern life. No culture clash here, there’s no time! Sabbath must lop off the head of another sin! The sins, as you might expect, are experts at the Art of the Monologue, insisting they don’t want to destroy the world, and in fact, they make it better.
Sabbath’s wild ride with Greed is a tour-de-force, and the scene with Gluttony, in which Jennifer, Sabbath and Jennifer’s friend Miriam are loaded to the gills on various street-drugs, is an amazing piece of prose. It’s hallucinatory; the dialogue is frightening accurate; the food (Gluttony is a foodie chef) sounds delicious and the shifts from rich, sensuous descriptions to human pain, gore and death caught me flat-footed.
All this leads to a climactic scene at Jennifer’s art gallery, where she is showing a series of paintings of white paint — just white paint — on canvas, all by different artists. Mamatas depicts the presidential candidate (who is exactly who you think it is) with pitch-perfect accuracy. The revelation of the identity of Pride was not a surprise but it was plausible and convincing. Sabbath’s choice at the very end was also not surprising. I would say I wanted to buy it more than I actually did.
Mamatas fans will probably like Sabbath for the reasons I did. People buying it based on its cover and the back description, expecting some kind of heavy-metal action adventure, may feel betrayed, although those action sequences are great. People who would like the social commentary and the dark, sharp humor may be put off by the Germanic-like font and the sword-and-flames cover design, which scream “metal.” Some readers of the graphic novel may make the jump, and maybe this book will really resonate with New Yorkers. So, yeah. I dunno. It’s strange. It’s interesting. That’s what I have to say.
“Envy is never quite good enough. Best description of Envy ever.”
Poor Envy! And I do agree, that’s the best possible description of Envy.