Slimy Underbelly is the latest instalment of the Dan Shamble series by acclaimed and prolific author Kevin J. Anderson. An absolutely delightful romp in the style of Terry Pratchett, Anderson has hit the exact balance of humour and good storytelling to make for an engaging tale that keeps you chuckling. Bad puns abound, so if those cause you trouble you may want to look elsewhere.
There’s something fishy going on in the Unnatural Quarter. Bodies are floating face-down, the plumbing is backing up, and something smells rotten—even to a zombie detective like Dan Shamble. Diving into the slimy underbelly of a diabolical plot, Dan comes face-to-tentacles with an amphibious villain named Ah’Chulhu (to which the usual response is “Gesundheit!”). With his snap-happy gang of gator-guys—former pets flushed down the toilet—Ah’Chulhu wreaks havoc beneath the streets. While feuding weather wizards kick up storms and a gang of thieving lawn gnomes continues their reign of terror, Dan Shamble is running out of time—before the whole stinking city goes down the drain…
I don’t usually like to read later books in a series that I haven’t read in their entirety, but Slimy Underbelly was both not at all clearly marked as a later book in a series (An issue I’ve seen happening more and more lately in SFF publishing) but also didn’t seem to suffer for it at all. Anderson does a good job working small little expository sentences into the dialogue and the inner monologue of Dan Shamble to help smooth over any bumps made by references to earlier works. Assuming the other books in this series are the same, it gives them a much more episodic feel which I appreciate in books of this style. When the emphasis is on the specific events happening, and the clever wordplay, I’d like to not have to spend a bunch of time hearing about what happened in the previous books, but I also don’t want to have to fail to find a reference funny or significant because I was ignorant of the origin from an earlier work. This book at least felt very ‘case-of-the-week’ which I appreciated.
Slimy Underbelly is quite possibly a work of comedy first, and of SFF second. I alluded in the intro to this review, that I felt a certain Pratchett influence on the comedy, but there’s also an element of Spider Robinson to it which made it appeal more to me. Pratchett tends more towards building his humour out of clever wordplay and while there are some great snippets of dialogue in Slimy Underbelly, it trends more towards situational comedy which helps make it feel a lot more natural. It’s not written -as- a comedy piece, but the humour comes out of the story elements and the idea that when nobody is looking directly at him, Dan Shamble is rolling his eyes a little at the absurdity of it all. You can’t name your tentacled demon character Ah’Chulhu, let alone also make him flagrantly Australian without knowing that you’re setting aside some of the seriousness. But don’t get me wrong, it isn’t silly, it is played completely straight but with tongue very firmly in cheek.
The other sub-genre this book fills is the ‘our normal world, except suddenly magic appears/comes back’ which is always a lot of fun. The elements of this in Slimy Underbelly are handled quite well. It’s implied (and possibly shown in earlier books) that the population at large didn’t really handle the sudden appearance of paranormal and supernatural creatures very well, but since I suppose even vampires, werewolves and ghost are just folk too would eventually allow things to settle down some. That said, it was perhaps a little unrealistic even for SFF that only 12 years later, the folk of the Unnatural Quarter are all just getting along like everybody else. Starbucks style coffee-houses that also sell blood, plasma, and embalming fluid are one thing, the complete lack of angry bigoted rioters and protesters were another. It’s perhaps a nitpick to be upset that not enough monsters were monstrous or that not enough humans were jerks, but it did sort of rub me the wrong way.
In fact, in a few spots, it felt laid on pretty thick. I’ve previously criticized the author Justin Gustainis for doing this, for making too much about the world about the supernatural elements, especially when they hadn’t been around long. I know that these creatures would happily start up businesses catering to their own kind, but if it’s seriously only been 12 years, the idea that whole areas of the city are just exclusively catering to the supernatural, who are all cohabiting with largely good grace seems a little much to ask. Of course, the response to that ought to be ‘Just relax Dan, it’s a series of books about a zombie detective, don’t stress out about the greater socio-political implications’ which is certainly a fair response. My occasional bouts of ‘oh come on!’ were definitely not enough to cause me to not completely enjoy this book. I’ll be checking out the back catalogue for sure, and could absolutely see a miniseries in the offing for these stories. Great stuff.
Dan received an Advanced Copy of Slimy Underbelly from Kensington via NetGalley