Yep, storm clouds are thrice cursed. First the Fae found out where I was hiding, then my dog killed a human, and now I’d earned the very personal enmity of a god who had been content for centuries to simply let his minions slap me around.
–Atticus O’Sullivan, mentally reviewing just much trouble he’s gotten into.
Atticus O’Sullivan is a druid living in 21st Century America. He’s the last one, as far as he can tell, and given that he looks like a local college student, he doesn’t look like a Druid to nearly everyone. You would think that the treeless desert of Tempe, Arizona, would be the perfect place for a Druid to keep far away from the Tuatha De Danaan he has been long on the run from, but unfortunately for Atticus, trouble has rolled up to his doorstep. A Celtic god wants back the sword Atticus has had long held possession of, and is prepared to go great lengths to get it. Indeed, the angry god is prepared to go to greater lengths that Atticus at first suspects or even imagines.
Other Celtic gods and goddesses have figured out where the long-hiding druid is, too, and they have their own mysterious agendas and plans for Atticus. Throw in a local witches’ coven, a werewolf pack, a mysterious bartender at his favorite Fish and chips pub, his intelligent wolfhound, and a bloodsucking lawyer who is a vampire, and you quickly get the sense that Atticus’ outwardly quiet life running a new age shop is far from quiet, or ordinary.\
Hounded is a debut novel from Kevin Hearne, telling the story of Atticus O’Sullivan in a wisecracking, hip first person narrative that crackles with energy, style and voice. Despite being 21 centuries old, Atticus comes across as a modern American, with an endless stream of pop culture references in thought and speech. He does show a variety of sides, giving an older, more nuanced mien to his supernatural friends, and a tuned into the modern world vibe to the wider world. I think the modern world voice is somewhat stronger in the narrative than the ancient druid patterns of thought and speech. Atticus, unlike many quasi-immortals in fantasy fiction, has found the secret to not being stuck in old ways of thinking and doing things. It is ironic, then, that his failure to understand an aspect of the modern world, the Internet, is the impetus for the plot.
Hearne is mining classic Urban Fantasy tropes in Hounded, with a protagonist who pretends to be normal, with a mundane existence, while all the time living and interacting with a supernatural world that most mortals do not see or suspect exists. Given the mythological sheen to the supernatural elements in the book, I was strongly reminded of the Role playing game Scion, where the children of various mythological pantheons deal with hidden supernatural threats in the modern world.
Another strong character besides Atticus himself is the milieu Hounded takes place in. The author lives in, and clearly loves Tempe, Arizona, and the book and Atticus himself reflect that loving detail. I was surprised at first, but bought into the idea that a green-loving druid could come to appreciate the stark desert of his adopted home. From the author’s favorite pub, to the mountains and parks around Tempe, the Arizona city and the terrain around it made an impression on me, the reader. I appreciate when a novelist invokes a city effectively enough for me to want to visit it sometime just to see some of the places brought to life by his words.
The action scenes in the novel work well, and the protagonist makes it clear that fighting to win, sometimes dirty, is the only rational approach to combat. Atticus fights to win and characters in fantastic literature ranging from the Gray Mouser to Prince Corwin to Lazarus Long to Quick Ben would approve of his methodology. I never felt that the often short and brutal fights had any “flynning” to pad the flow of the fights. These combats also do show that tangling in such fighting have consequences.
Given that there are a plethora of supernatural beings in the book, you will not be surprised to learn that there are a number of magic systems at work in the book, including the protagonist’s novel and unusual ability to handle the otherwise magic-eating cold iron. While the novel makes it clear that he has spent centuries learning and honing this difficult and unique magic, I didn’t quite get the sense of what this knowledge cost him to perfect. Given how powerful and important it is to his survival, and given that classic enmity between magic and cold iron, a little more explication of how he managed the feat of using in enchantment was something I would have liked to know more about.
As someone interested in world-building, however, my major criticism of the book is the kitchen sink approach to all of the mythology and supernatural elements with somewhat less rigor than I would have liked.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that human imagination and belief seem to shape how the gods act and manifest, but I think this is insufficiently explored, at least in this volume. Comments about Mary and Jesus, for instance, make it clear that the worshippers of a god have an influence on that god’s attributes—but if that is the case, why do gods who haven’t been widely worshipped in a thousand years have any agency at all, or even still exist? How precisely does it work? I think of several Harry Turtledove novels which explore the theological connection between worshipper and the strength, power and abilities of their gods, and wonder how the gods here work in that sort of framework.
I did appreciate, though, that Hearne had the good agency to make his pantheons evolve and change over time. The pecking order of the Celtic pantheon has changed and evolved over 2000 years, and I am sure that other mythological pantheons might show similar change as well.
However, the rest of the supernatural elements we see felt to an extent like they were thrown in for the sake of having them, and almost feel like piling on to the Celtic mythology. In addition to the Celtic Gods, as mentioned above Hounded has werewolves *and* witches *and* a vampire. There is even more along this vein that I won’t reveal for spoiler purposes, since their appearance is not until relatively late in the book. And there are hints that there are even more supernaturals running around his world that the protagonist himself is less than aware of. Having too many hidden supernatural elements, in my opinion, starts to require a greater explanation for why the ordinary public is unaware of such a large population living in their midst.
Overall, I think Hounded is an above average novel debut. Urban Fantasy is a crowded field these days, with a lot of interchangeable heroes and heroines in a sea of werewolves, vampires, witches and other things that go bump in the night. Although he does fall himself into the trap of using some of those familiar tropes, with its mythological roots Hearne has created an Urban Fantasy world that carves a niche of its own. He gets crucial points from me for trying some original things in the subgenre, and the strong clear voice and personality of Atticus clinches it for me.
Readers like me who are tired of an endless parade of cookie cutter nocturnal urban fantasy would do well to check out Hounded. Such potential readers who read copious amounts of mythology would be doubly advised to check out what Hearne is doing. I can be extremely picky with Urban Fantasy, and only a few select authors ever tempt me to read a second book from them. Although there are some weaknesses as I mentioned above, I am looking forward to picking up and reading the next two volumes in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid trilogy.