fantasy and science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsTo Hell and Back: The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes

CLASSIFICATION: The Damned Busters is a whimsical PG-13 urban fantasy novel that combines the supernatural and superheroes with comedy and romance.

FORMAT/INFO: The Damned Busters ARC is 239 pages long divided over 12 numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person, exclusively via the protagonist Chesney Arnstruther. The Damned Busters is self-contained, but is the first volume in the To Hell and Back series, which has a sequel — Costume Not Included— scheduled for publication in 2012. May 5, 2011/May 31, 2011 marks the UK/North American Mass Market Paperback publication of To Hell and Back: The Damned Busters via Angry Robot. Cover art is provided by Tom Gauld.

ANALYSIS: The Damned Busters is a novel that immediately caught my attention simply because it was written by Matthew Hughes. In fact, the only thing I knew about the book going in was that The Damned Busters was the author’s first attempt at writing urban fantasy. Urban fantasy is a genre I’ve all but given up on, but I had faith that Matthew Hughes would not let me down and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Damned Busters gets off to a fast start with the protagonist Chesney Arnstruther accidentally summoning a demon from Hell, while Chesney’s amusing interactions with various inhabitants of Hell and details about the protagonist’s peculiar personality and background — loves mathematics; works as an actuary at Paxton Life and Casualty (PL&C); uses “strings of nonsense syllables” in place of profanity (follyfluke, ding-dabble, blue bling blithers); hobbies include reading superhero comix and playing poker; described as “severely introverted” — quickly establishes the novel’s whimsical nature. Where things really start to get interesting though is after Hell goes on a strike because of Chesney’s actions:

Greed, anger, lust, gluttony — indeed, all of what used to be called the ‘seven deadly sins’ — have suddenly stopped affecting our conduct. It’s as if, after having spent all our lives with a devil and an angel on each shoulder, none of our devils are showing up for work.

The result is a world quite different from the one I had imagined if all evil was suddenly eliminated. A world that Chesney succinctly describes as “Meh. That’s what it is. Not good, not bad, just meh.” To help resolve this situation, Chesney enlists the aid of Reverend Billy Lee Hardacre — a television preacher who was once a successful lawyer and bestselling author — to act as a mediator between Satan and the Infernal Brotherhood of Fiends, Demons and Tempters (IBFDT). The solution they come up with revolves around Hardacre’s interesting theory that everything — “Heaven, Hell and everything in between” — is just the draft of a book that God is writing and Chesney’s unprecedented deal with Satan in which he gets to command a demon for two hours out of every twenty-four in order to “fight crime and bad guys.”

At this point, The Actionary is born and The Damned Busters ventures into more familiar territory where superheroes, droll comedy and awkward romance all collide. In short, imagine a quirky indie film starring Michael Cera crossed with the likes of Kick-Ass, Defendor and Super, but without the graphic violence and narcissism. Of course, there are a number of factors that help distinguish The Damned Busters from the competition, one of which is The Actionary’s powers. Changing into his costume, night vision, hyper speed, strength of ten, teleportation, appearing at a crime before it happens… Chesney can accomplish all this and much more by simply issuing a command to Xaphan — a saber-toothed, weasel-faced demon who talks and dresses like a gangster and is addicted to rum and cigars.

Another key factor is Chesney himself. A borderline autistic with practically no social skills, Chesney Arnstruther is not the kind of person one envisions as a superhero, but it’s these eccentric qualities that make him unique and endearing. Like the way he’s always questioning himself about whether or not his actions and comments are socially acceptable, resulting in some fascinating and entertaining conversations, especially with the opposite sex.

Matthew Hughes’ writing meanwhile, is superb throughout with clever prose:

So imaginative were her renditions of the sufferings of the damned that, in another life, she might have won renown as an author of fictions meant to chill the blood and shiver the spine. But fiction was far from Mrs. Arnstruther’s mind as she described the impalings, amputations, roastings, piercings, gougings and rough penetrations into intimate parts that awaited her correspondents. To her, these torments were as real as breakfast. And her contemplation of their visitation upon the recipients of her missives, far from causing her chills or shivers, always brought a rosy glow to her rounded countenance.

Amusing dialogue, and brisk pacing making it feel like I was reading a book by Dean Koontz and Terry Pratchett.

Overall, To Hell and Back: The Damned Busters is a damn good book. Chesney Arnstruther is a uniquely charming protagonist; the plot is immensely entertaining, full of wit, humor and heart; the ideas presented are original and thought-provoking; and Matthew Hughes’ writing is skillful and engaging. Best of all, The Damned Busters is a blast to read and not quite like any book I’ve ever tried before, instantly making the sequel one of my most anticipated releases of 2012.

To Hell and Back — (2011-2012) Publisher: After accidentally summoning a demon, the mild-mannered Chesney Anstruther refuses to sign the contract, causing Hell to go on strike. But with no demons to tempt mankind, the world becomes a strange and boring place. To settle the strike, a deal is struck between Satan and Chesney, and thus the strangest superhero duo ever seen — in Hell or on Earth — is born!

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMatthew Hughes To Hell and Back 1. The Damned Busters, Costume Not Includedfantasy and science fiction book reviews


  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.