Cure for Hellatus – The Unholy Cause

Imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, I was contacted by Tom to review the latest SPN book coming out: the Unholy Cause.  After confirming that it was legit, I agreed, figuring that while my reputation may be shot, I can’t turn down free books.  Of course, no favorable review is promised, but in thanks I will make the book first up for the summer hiatus.  See?  I can be merciful.

With 5 SPN books out now, it seems we have enough for a pattern.  Every book will either be the Winchesters fighting a singular threat (the case in all of KRAD‘s novels) or an army al la the best episode of season 3, Jus in Bello.  So of course, this book will inevitably be compared with the relative failure of Witch’s Canyon.

At the very least, this one is an improvement.

This novel does follow my two biggest requirements for Property Fiction (PF).  It does not violate any of the rules of the original property (#0) and it mostly works as a story that can only be told in the SPN universe, none others (rule #1).  So I at least commend author Joe Schreiber on these accounts.

A new element is introduced in this story which has the prints of Joe’s research all over it and is pretty nifty.  My biggest complaint about it was that it broke the spirit of SPN which is: there are rules to everything (even if the show itself bends this now and then).  It is literally an object which does whatever the plot requires it to.  Usually if I was asked to write a guide for something in the show (the Colt, Ruby’s Knife, etc) I feel confident that I could hash out an entry for the SPN:RPG or just for hunters in general because of the attributes those things demonstrate.  As far as the object in question… not a chance.  This was the biggest draw back for me.  It became even more glaring when the story keeps expressing civil war re-enactor love when we could be getting more info on the McGuffin.  Nothing wrong with informing the readers, but the balance should have been shifted a bit more.

The dangling plot threads in this novel are also a nuisance and those who can’t stand them should stay away.  I can stand a little mystery in my fiction – I don’t need every detail spelled out for me, but I do prefer to at least be given hints of answers (or at least that there are answers).  The main villain behind everything is never given clear motivation beyond “he’s evil”.  Part of me kept asking, “sure he’s bad, but with all the ways to wreck havoc in SPN, why is he doing this thing in particular?”  The author does a good job of keeping Castiel out of the way for most of the book, but then toward the end he returns to “get involved” only to kind of evaporate for no reason that I could find.  One particular “new addition” to SPN’s monster list is actually pretty cool and built up… only for it too to just kind of ‘vanish’ after a certain point (and while Cas’ disappearance was subtle, these things was so blatant I was surprised editors didn’t see it).

While Joe does have the up close fighting down pretty well as a novelist, his work on larger scale fighting really needs improving.  When the scene had to cover a wide area, things tended to break down, sometimes leaving the reader confused about what’s happening or where things and people are.  Thankfully these are kept to a minimum and shouldn’t hinder the reader too much.

Is there anything good about this book?  Actually yes.  Joe really manages to capture the essence of SPN now and then, better than even KRAD does sometimes.  The opening chapter alone is one of the best I’ve read in a long time, the closest any book could come to the show’s cold openers in that format.

The man put a lot of research into the book and it shows.  The original characters aren’t too bad and the show mainstays stick to their established forms.  It was also enjoyable to have the author weave the “rock playlist” for this story in through the pages instead of the standard playlist KRAD lists at the end of his.  I wouldn’t say one method is better than the other, rather I enjoy seeing how a series’ common motifs are expressed by different authors.

Finally, Joe does take advantage of the novel format to show us what no episode ever will, which is also a big plus in my grading scale.  My other [new] criteria is “how well would this work in the RPG game”.  This novel wouldn’t translate well, but if Joe was acting as GM for a game, I’d sit at his table.  I’d certainly give his 2nd SPN novel (if he wrote one) a try.

Final word?  There are a lot of good nuggets in this book.  With a bit more editing and some polishing of his drafts, I have no doubt Joe Schreiber could turn out some 5 shell SPN novels.  As it is, if you’re really jonesing for a hit of SPN, this isn’t too bad.  Completists or those without an SPN:RPG play group should probably pick this one up.  Casual fans and those with dice and pals should just stick with their DVDs and character sheets.

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