Here we are at the end of the To Hell and Back trilogy. As I said in my Dreams of Gods and Monsters review, a trilogy works best for me if each successive book raises the stakes and widens the scope of its world. By these criteria, Matthew Hughes has succeeded. The first book introduces Chesney Arnstruther, a high-functioning autistic man whose world is mostly numbers until he accidentally summons a demon, incites a strike in Hell, and becomes the Actionary, a superhero. The second book offers insights into the relationship between Heaven and Hell and hints that the universe is a book God is writing. The third book expands on these ideas, discarding some and fleshing out others. As Chesney adjusts to Joshua’s healing of his autism, Hell flounders about while Satan is AWOL, and it becomes apparent that something is going on.
Hell to Pay is a lot of fun for someone who has read the first two books. Those were entertaining but not great; in particular, they tended to suffer from flatter characters than I like. While the characterization hasn’t improved dramatically here, it has improved, which helps. Chesney and Melda’s relationship feels more like that of a real couple, with cracks and cuddles alike. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Xaphan gets a more expanded viewpoint in this novel, something I really enjoyed.
But where this book excels as a conclusion to the series is the way that Hughes deploys a considerable amount of foreshadowing to build towards a final, moving climax. Using the plot device that demons and angels only know exactly what Satan or God needs them to know, Hughes starts to drop hints that something is happening—that God is pulling strings at a frightfully alarming rate. Billy Hardacre’s conjecture that the world is a book proves not to be entirely accurate; worse still, it appears that Chesney’s meddling from the very beginning of the series has done more serious damage than we initially thought. All of this is a bad thing for our heroes, who find themselves going the way of the Chikkichakk. What, you’ve never heard of the Chikkichakk? Hmm … maybe there’s a reason for that.
In short, I loved how we learn more about the mechanics of this universe in Hell to Pay. It’s just so fascinating. Hughes has clearly put thought into how this works, what angels and demons actually are as beings, and how they differ from regular old people. For those who have read the first two books in the series, then, this book provides a lot of answers. And while it’s a little heavy on the exposition, I wouldn’t say that Hughes gives these answers at the expense of a plot. This book is much more “big picture” than the first two, which a much-reduced emphasis on Chesney’s actions on Earth or his role as the Actionary. However, there is still plenty of conflict happening. Blowdell is back, raised by the Archduke Adramaleka, who is starting to entertain usurping notions during Satan’s extended absence.
Hughes manages all this with a kind of dry tone that others are comparing to Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett, and I’d agree. Some authors are great and portraying demon stories as dark, gritty, horrific. Others tend towards a balance of light and dark, the humour offsetting the tragedy. Hughes’ take is almost entirely comic—and in this case, it works splendidly. It’s a Good Omens–like look at Heaven and Hell.
Chesney’s evolution as a character continues. He’s much less sure of himself in this book, now that his pools of light have been replaced by a wider understanding of human emotions and signals. I’m not all that satisfied by the ending—without going into spoilers, let’s just say that I’m sceptical Melda would find it an acceptable way to resolve their relationship troubles—but I can sympathize with the struggle Chesney undergoes. He’s starting to understand the profound consequences of being a hero, of attempting to fight the bad guys, and of the collateral damage that inevitably occurs. The underlying theme of morality, of what it means to strive towards being a moral person, is present mostly in Chesney’s self-examination. Should he kill? Is that justified? Should he help someone torture for revenge? It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows.
After two books that steadily improved, Hell to Pay continues this trajectory. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the series, answering questions and offering a tense standoff to be resolved only through clever wrangling. Hughes has his characters face-off essentially against God and, if not exactly win, then draw. (I’m not sure what happens to Denby.) If you haven’t read the first two books, then I’d recommend them on the strength of this one. The Damned Busters is a lukewarm experience, but it’s still entertaining and well worth the read to what proves to be an original and enjoyable series.