Orbit, 2010, 307 pages, C$24.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-04127-0
I have read practically everything by A. Lee Martinez, but only reviewed a few of his books: While his premises are almost always interesting, what he does with them isn’t always worth talking about. He seems to have one favourite plot structure in his bag of tricks: show a few ordinary oddball characters in amusing genre situations and reveal one of them to be a hidden god fit to do battle against a terrible enemy beyond space and time in a bid to control all of the multiverses. It’s not a bad plot per se –but like so many other overused things, it really starts grating when it happens over and over again. A Nameless Witch particularly suffered from this plot device overuse, as did Monster. Adding to the problem is that Martinez is never as enjoyable as when he’s writing about ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations: the moment he reaches for the overblown, the metaphysical or the multiversal, I could hear my interest in his books falling to the floor… to remain there.
With Divine Misfortune, he revisits this familiar plot, as our lead characters are once again stuck in-between warring gods. But wait! The premise is, for once, used effectively. There are fewer surprises on the way from mundane strangeness to all-out divine combat. Our ordinary character courts divine intervention from the get-go and the framework of the novel’s universe is suitable to such things. After all, Divine Misfortune takes place in an alternate dimension in which gods are real and can be courted by mortals. Their influence comes directly from the number of worshipers they have and if everyone wants a piece of Zeus or Yahweh, there are thousands of other gods willing to pay just a bit more personal attention to you if you can prove to be an effective worshiper. There aren’t many differences between our contemporary North America and theirs, except for video-matching services for suburban go-getters looking for an extra advantage in life.
People like Teri and Phil, for instance: ordinary white-collar workers looking for a bit of help for their commute and mortgage. Teri’s never been one to worship a domestic god, but Phil thinks it’s a splendid idea, and before long the couple has settled upon Raccoon-shaped Luka, a minor god of prosperity who will make things go their way… as long as he can crash on their couch for a few days. The welcome-in party, at least, gets epic as soon as Luka invites his friends… and some of them start hanging around. Divine Misfortune may be the only novel so far in which we get a laugh out of Hades being beaten at Death Ninja 3, and at Quetzalcoatl lounging on the couch, “watching telenovellas”.
In between divine domesticity, we get glimpses at other gods, some of them definitely nastier than others. So when Phil starts fighting off unusually violent squirrels and being used as a Job-like figure between warring gods, we’re ready for the escalation and the result feels like a logical plot development rather than something thrown in there to lead the story somewhere. The big finale uses so many gods that it starts feeling like a comic-book cross-over event, but Divine Misfortune never quite completely loses its connection with its ordinary characters, and that’s one of the reasons why it succeeds at the exact point when some of Martinez’ other novels became less and less interesting.
It goes without saying that the novel is joy to read, in-between the light-hearted details of a universe in which gods can directly influence human destiny. It’s not a laugh-riot, but it’s good enough to keep up a smile during most of its duration. While Divine Misfortune doesn’t have the mythological weight of more ambitious fantasy such as Gaiman’s American Gods, it’s after a different kind of impact and it succeeds quite a bit better than many of Martinez’ other books. It’s probably still a bit too scattered (some of the scenes involving the antagonist felt too long and laugh-free compared to the rest) and the last act gets a bit too dark, but it’s better-handled than most of the author’s other novels –and there’s more basis for comparison there than the usual. This is Martinez’s best since The Automatic Detective and Gil’s All-Fright Diner; I just hope that he’s got the sense to realize that he’s done the “fights between gods” shtick as well as he possibly can, and that he can now move on to something else.