Book Review: Department Zero by Paul Crilley
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 1/Stand Alone
Publisher: Pyr (January 24, 2017)
Length: 320 pages
I had a nice surprise when I picked up Department Zero. The book initially caught my eye as a cross-genre science fiction and fantasy adventure about infinite alternate realities, as well as a secret society of agents who have to traverse multiple worlds to clean up interstitial messes. But as if that isn’t cool enough already, Paul Crilley doubles down by tying everything into the Cthulhu mythos and giving this one a nice shot of Lovecraftian horror.
The story stars Harry Priest, a man with one hell of a tough job. He’s in what you would call “biohazard remediation”, which means he cleans up dead people for a living, usually at the site of accidents, murders, suicides, and unattended deaths where the body has had plenty of time to decompose in the stifling L.A. heat. You name it, Harry’s seen it. But still, nothing could have prepared him for his latest assignment. On what he thought was another routine call, Harry arrives to a gore-splattered abandoned motel room in the middle of nowhere, and sees something he shouldn’t have. Before long, Harry finds himself the target of savage spiders and monkey creatures and other frightening monstrosities that shouldn’t exist.
The attacks soon lead him to meet up with Havelock Graves of the Interstitial Crime Department, an agency that polices the multiverse. After being recruited into the ICD, Harry learns all about the network of interdimensional gates and their access to an infinite number of worlds in which there’s always someone, somewhere, sometime trying to break the rules of universe-hopping. Unfortunately for Harry though, Graves is determined to get back on top after his team is disgraced—and isn’t above using our protagonist as bait to draw out a Cthulhu cult that has dastardly plans to destroy the multiverse by awakening the Great Old One.
The first time I read Paul Crilley was a few years ago when I picked up his novels in the Tweed and Nightingale Adventures series, though at the time I hadn’t known he predominantly wrote Middle Grade and Young Adult titles. I was excited when I learned that he was branching into adult speculative fiction with the recent Poison City, and now Department Zero. As expected this one was a blast, combining a mix of action, adventure, and just plain weirdness. It’s also extremely fast-paced, the pages flying by as we’re shunted from one oddball situation to the next. In many ways, the plot reminded me of some crazy video game, which isn’t too surprising considering Crilley’s biography includes writing credits on five computer games (one of them being Star Wars: The Old Republic, a favorite of mine). Keep in mind too that Department Zero is a multiverse story where literally anything can happen, and indeed the author also makes the most out of this by unleashing his imagination, allowing this parade of horrors and wonders to move at full speed.
That said, at times this hectic approach feels overwhelming. The plot will continue charging on ahead even when you wish it would take a breather for a couple pages, regroup and recuperate and maybe spend a few moments getting to know our characters better. Many of them have zany personalities but then they end up being largely forgettable, and Harry himself feels roughly sketched and underdeveloped for a protagonist. He has a failed marriage, a dead-end job, a young daughter that he wishes he can spend more time with, as well as a bucketful of regrets—but I couldn’t connect emotionally to any of his problems. A part of me thinks this might have something to do with the writing style. First-person present tense can feel a bit awkward even at the best of times, and I don’t know if it was the best narrative choice for this story. There’s also the tone of the humor, which sometimes feels over-the-top and a bit forced, though at the same time Crilley also serves up some epic snark, leading to memorable dialogue and hilarious one-liners.
At the end of the day, Department Zero is a light and entertaining novel guaranteed to shake you out of your typical urban fantasy routine. While it might not be that deep, and the humor and pacing might take some getting used to, the story’s quirky premise is perhaps the foremost reason I would recommend it. Readers who enjoy a mix of genres and concepts will especially get a kick out of this snappy, imaginative adventure. If you happen to like your UF on the eccentric side, then this book will be like treating yourself to the most amazing all-you-can-eat buffet.