Costume Not Included is the second volume in Hughes' To Hell and Back series after The Damned Busters. Not having read the prior book, I decided to take a chance and read it after being captured by the cover - yes, I'm shallow like that, but seriously... how cool is that cover? - and intrigued by the synopsis given on the site. To be honest, the synopsis, included above, doesn't really do the book justice as it's so much more than it suggests. In actuality, Chesney, his demon assistant, Xaphan, and his girlfriend, Melda, need to save the world from ending in a glorious puff of nothing. Costume Not Included was a fun read, but it did take me quite a while to get into the book, as it's very clearly book two in a series, and not having read the first one, there were some things I didn't understand. Hughes doesn't really recap anything from the previous book, so new readers are thrown into the deep end and have to gather information on what went before from the text as they go. At first, this was confusing, but once I settled into the book and the action got going, what went before was less important as what was happening right now.
The main character of the book, Chesney - as an aside, am I the one and only person who keeps having flashbacks to one-hit-wonder Chesney Hawkes at that name? Or am I dating myself now? - is quite interesting. Apart from being a demon-assisted super hero called the Actionary, a nice pun on his day job of actuary, he is also a high-functioning autist. Hughes never comes out and states this, but the way Chesney's thought processes are described - the pools of light - his trouble with social interactions and his love of numbers all led me to quickly conclude that Chesney might have Asperger's or some such. Being pretty familiar with autism-spectrum disorders due to having people in my life who have them, I thought Chesney's symptoms pretty convincing and I think Hughes really hit the nail on the head in showing us how life can look from an autistic perspective. I liked Chesney's self-awareness and how funny he is at times when talking about his being different. But don't let my focus on Chesney's autism mislead you, this book isn't a quirky, fantastical look at said disorder; no, the autism is part of who Chesney is, but he is so much more. He's a young man trying to find his way in the world, figuring out his first relationship, trying pry loose his mother's death grip on his figurative umbilical cord and in addition to these 'normal' concerns, he's also trying to figure out how this super hero lark works. I truly enjoyed Chesney's point of view and his story, which shows both emotional growth and social development.
Chesney's supporting group of characters is a strong one and highly entertaining. The pack is led by his demonic sidekick, Xaphan, who has stuck to his 1920's persona and language and who is a classic mob guy. He is part comic relief and part magic wand, helping Chesney find crime to fight and moving him around without people seeing him. Next up we have Melda, Chesney's girlfriend. She was a hard character to get a bead on at first for me, as I kept expecting her to be with Chesney just because he's a super hero and he can provide fame and wealth for her. Luckily, it turns out that she really does love him and I came to really like her. Rounding out the crime-fighting team is Lt. Denby, a police officer who gets drafted by Chesney to help him catch The Twenty, the big fish of the town who run it through corruption and intimidation. In addition, there is also Chesney's overbearing, zealot mother, Letitia, and her 'husband' Reverend Hardacre. These latter two are hilarious; they make fun of the stereotypical TV-preacher types, common in the US and their adherents, without turning them into cardboard caricatures. I loved the way that Letitia learns to accept that her baby is grown up and won't be automatically obeying her any more and more importantly, that she is no longer the pre-eminent woman in his life, that this position now belongs to Melda. It made her sympathetic to the reader in a way Chesney himself can't see her and I thought this very well done by Hughes. Hardacre is everything you expect a TV preacher to be, slimy, proud and out for his own glory, though he also really seems to believe he is chosen by God to help him further creation.
The central conceit to the 'Saving the World from Ending'-plot is the fact that God is writing a book and we are nothing but characters in it, through which he can learn the truth about Good and Evil. Problem is, whenever God messes up and dislikes what he's written, he discards the current draft and starts a new one from the point where he was still happy with his Creation, which means that the world as we know it ends and changes to suit the new draft. I thought this was a clever idea and the way Hughes lets this play out is very cool. I really liked the resolution of this storyline and how much more convoluted it turned out to be than at first implied. Chesney has to go back to Hell and deal with the Devil again and he even retrieves a prior draft-version of Jesus to help him solve the problem. This version of Jesus was hilarious as he's nothing like our modern day depiction of him; everything we know about Jesus? All changed after the fact due to God starting a new draft. And he's none too happy about that, or about where he ended up--a sort of Groundhog Day version of Nazareth. In the end the resolution to this plot line ties everything neatly together, while still leaving some side plots open, so there is still enough to do in the next book.
Costume Not Included is a funny, clever book and I'm glad I took a chance on it. However, if you can do read The Damned Busters first, as I expect it'll make for a smoother read once you start Costume Not Included; this is definitely not a book that stands easily on its own, it's very much part of a series. I know I'll be looking to get my hands on a copy of The Damned Busters, not just to see what I missed, but also to spend more time with Chesney and his friends, because they are great company. Costume Not Included is out now from Angry Robot Books in the US and worldwide and will be released in the UK tomorrow. Book three in the series, Hell to Pay, will be released in March 2013, I know I'll be back to see Chesney trying to roll up The Twenty!
This book was provided for review by the publisher.