Dead Harvest is the debut novel of American writer Chris F Holm. I won a copy of the book in a competition on Twitter. I decided to read it without looking at the blurb, or researching it online, so this will be a very short introduction. Thank you Angry Robot for providing me with a review copy of Dead Harvest.
It's late evening, and you are on your way home from the office. For once the bus was not overcrowded, letting you sit down while you counted the stops until it was time to alight. The area you live in is really quite alright, sure there are a few dark alleys you would not go through, but all in all it's not a bad neighbourhood. You know this, yet you cannot help feel worried when you see a man leaning against the fence surrounding the park. Even from this distance you can see the size of him. To your relief you realise there is another man walking down the street towards you. With only a hint of shame you decide to cross the road, you would have to soon anyway, and this way you can avoid the two men, who will shortly meet. Before you pass out of sight you turn your head for a quick glance, and what you see stops your breath. The smaller man, barely reaching up to the shoulder of the other, thrusts out with his hand, as he passes the bigger man. Instead of impacting against the other man's chest, his hand sinks through without bloodshed. The face of the large man contorts from pain and fear. You decide to run as fast as you can, only this time you feel no shame.
A friend of mine once told me every reviewer secretly wishes they were writers. Clearly she was wrong, I just happen to think this was a suitable way to introduce Dead Harvest. What our unfortunate friend just witnessed was a Collector collecting the soul of a damned. You see, when you do something bad you draw the attention of hell and its minions. Then, maybe you can be tricked, or made desperate enough, to do something even worse, and that's how they get their claws on your soul. Claiming their prize is not something the demons do, this is where the Collectors come in. They used to be mortals, but are now doomed to harvest the souls of the damned. Some of the, take pleasure in it, some just feel they just become less and less human for every soul they take.
For his sins, Sam Thornton is a collector. He is standing in a hospital ward with his fist reaching into the chest of a young woman, who has killed her family. Sam has a tight grip of her soul, but instead of feeling the darkness of her guilt, he is instead struck by the light and purity of her innocence. This is something the has never felt before, and he immediately realises something is very wrong here. His job is to collect those whose souls are corrupt from their sins and no one else. God knows, he really does, Sam Thornton is no angel, but he won't condemn this young woman to an eternity of torment in hell. He decides to do the unthinkable and releases her soul. He must get her out of the hospital to win some time, and get to the bottom of this. Easier said than done, the hospital is full of cops, and the girl is cuffed to her bed. Sam Thornton suspects this will still be easier than whatever comes next.
Sam Thornton is not without resources of his own. First of all, the body he is wearing is not his own, it's not even alive. One of the skills of a collector is to take possession of a body, be it dead or alive. Useful when you need to get close to someone, who otherwise would be hard to get to. Will it be enough to take on the legions of hell?
The demons and angels genre is not one I read a lot of, probably because they tend to have rather cheesy covers, mostly featuring half naked men and women. I did however read Good Omens by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, which is a great book. Another great book about demons and angels is God's Demon by Wayne Barlow. However, we are here to talk about Dead Harvest.
Let's start with the bad, so we can finish with the good. I did struggle with the structure of the story. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Dead Harvest was mostly a middle bit, where Sam Thornton and the girl were on the run from the demons. The problem is it all felt pointless as it did not lead anywhere. This long chase does not really move the plot forward at all, and it's mostly used to give us background information. First a escape scene, followed by the girl asking why Sam Thornton can't just do something a certain way, and him explaining why. Not how like my exposition to be delivered, and I felt it ruined the otherwise well written action. To top it all off the end is only brought forward as Sam Thornton suddenly makes a crucial connection. That's a little bit too easy I'm afraid.
The setting did not leave me with much of an impression. Dead Harvest is supposedly set in the US during the depression, but I can't say it stood out in anyway. I was really hoping for something more along the lines of Empire State, where the setting itself was as alive as the characters.
Luckily, Chris F Holm has done a lot better with Sam Thornton, who is a rather likeable character. Maybe not something you would expect for someone who has damned himself to eternal suffering. Sam Thornton is saved by his good sense of humour, and pragmatic approach to problem solving. He seems to thrive under pressure, and with the legions of hell hot on his heels, it's a good thing he does.
Sam Thornton's memories of his life before his damnation is what I liked best about Dead Harvest. The recollections are very short and scattered throughout the book, like small nuggets of character depth.
Dead Harvest is a book I want to like, with a good concept, a strong character with both depth and conflict, but the delivery lets the writer down. The book turned out to be an exciting read, and I even missed a buss stop, but things too often ground to a halt from info dumping. Chris F Holm still showed potential, and I wouldn't be surprised if I pick up the second part.
Dead Harvest weighs in at 416 pages and is published by Angry Robot Books. It's scheduled to be released on the 1st March 2012.
Recommendation: don't read