I signed up to review First Circle Club by Alex Siegel as part of a blog tour for the book. The description made it sound like a fun and not too serious take on the eternal battle between heaven and hell, and with some mystery, action, and suspense thrown in. It also promises to be the first of a series, so those of you who enjoy this type of thing have more to look forward to.
The Situation: Virgil was a U.S. Marshall killed in the line of duty in the 1970s, and due to some questionable choices he made while performing his job, it was decided that he would be assigned to hell for all eternity. Fortunately for him (or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), he only had to go as far as limbo, or the first circle. While he avoids things like lakes of fire and endless torture, he must file endless paperwork for all eternity, which of course is a sort of torture in and of itself. Fortunately (or again, unfortunately, depending on your view), something terrible and unheard of has happened, and both heaven and hell need someone with Virgil's past experience on Earth to help sort things out. It isn't a second chance exactly, but it is a break in the monotony of endless filing, and gives Virgil a chance to be back on Earth.
The Problem: The unfathomable thing that has happened is that essentially someone has managed to escape hell, and it is one of the last people anyone would ever want roaming the earth again. Daniel was a serial killer when he was alive, and he has decided to resume his work now that he has returned. To make matters worse, he wasn't simply given his old human body to work with, but a stronger one with more power and a better healing ability. But Virgil was also given such a body, as was Lisa, another soul that was condemned to limbo, and Alfred and Sara, two souls that were recruited from heaven. Together, the four of them are to work together to try to hunt down Daniel and send him back to his punishment, and also find out how he was able to escape in the first place as accomplishing such a feat means he is certainly not working alone. If anything, they need to stop him from killing more innocent people.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel with elements of fantasy, and some light humor. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, but does provide enough back story and description to aid in the suspension of disbelief. Virgil and Lisa are souls recruited from hell, as Virgil is a former U.S. Marshall and Lisa is an ex-cop, so both would have experience hunting down dangerous people. Sara was recruited from heaven because of her experience as a medical examiner, and Alfred was a psychologist. In addition to being given bodies with powerful new abilities, Virgil is able to make people feel incredible amounts of guilt and shame just by speaking to them, while Alfred can allow any human to feel peace and an endless amount of trust. Lisa can cause physical pain simply by touching someone, while Sara was given the power to heal by blowing on a wound with her breath. The team must work together using their new powers to hunt down and overcome Daniel, who can make sharp blades out of his hands to better aid in his killing. But they must do so without telling people who or what they are, or limiting the agent of free will for the still living humans in any way. It seems both heaven and hell have a number of rules regarding conduct on Earth that both sides must follow, and violations have their own consequences, with each side maintaining a "budget" that can only handle so many infractions. It's a complicated issue without a straightforward solution, but even the recruited souls from heaven are pretty happy being active again on Earth.
My Verdict: While the battle between heaven and hell is certainly not a new theme, Siegel takes it in his own direction and plays with it, which makes for a fun rediscovery of an old idea for a novel. There are a few things about it that aren't terribly fresh, like having a serial killer turn out the way he has because of an oppressive and religious father; or giving the undead U.S. Marshall, who died when he was about 50ish, a twenty something year-old love interest. Also, while the main objective is to find Daniel and send him back to hell, there is an entire side story where the team must find the incredibly wealthy benefactor who is clearly aiding the serial-killer. For a good 100 pages or so, there is very little talk of Daniel, and he has all but disappeared from the narrative. Perhaps this is something that will be further dealt with in future books in the series, but for this one I found it odd. Other than that, the book is full of action and interesting tidbits regarding how heaven and hell function, with characters that will carry well throughout an ongoing series.
Favorite Moment: Anytime Alfred used his voice to accomplish what he needed.
Favorite Character: My favorite of the four was certainly Alfred. With his voice, he was able to disarm almost everyone instantly, and given much more time, he would have them sobbing in his arms, telling him about their child and their long hard road to a regrettable life of violence.
Recommended Reading: It won't be nearly as fun as this book, but I still recommend, Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. The part about hell, or the Inferno, is of course the most interesting, but I recommend reading the whole thing.