Tome of Geek: Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes

Hell to Pay, by Matthew Hughes - design by Tom GauldThere is something sad inside you when a series comes to end.  Some, like Wheel of Time or The Dresden Files, are long series that you’ve followed for many, many, years while others are shorter, trilogies or whatnot, but when you hit the last book you feel that same feeling.  The sadness that it’s ending, the joy at the finale and the sorrow that exist as you have to find a way to pick yourself up and move on.  Once again I suffer and cheer through a series end as the To Hell and Back series comes, to what we assume, is the end with Hell to Pay.

I stumbled across The Damned Busters and instantly fell in love with the concept and the book.  I consumed it like a hungry beast and ravished Costume Not Included the moment it hit shelves.  Then I saw and eagerly waited for the third book: Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes.

Hell to Pay takes us back to world of Chesney Anstruther – aka The Actionary -, Xaphan, and the world that exist as a book that God is writing to learn about morality.  We return to Chesney’s life of fighting crime with his demon sidekick, taking down the griffter known as Arthur Wrigley, and his battle to save his city from the reach of evil, but as he fight he can’t help but worry about Poppy Paxton – the rich heiress that because of his influence met the devil, got sent to hell and barely escaped.  Despite her memory being wiped she has become a bundle of quiver mess, like an amplified PTS victim.  Chesney, feeling guilty – for the first time ever – for his involvement – tried to find a way to cure Poppy without restoring her memories.  This lead him and Xaphan traveling to another pocket dimension – a part of existence that no longer present in reality after God wrote it out of the main narrative – to recover an ancient mystic from Biblical times names Simon Magus.

This, the final straw, sends reality spinning as everything starts to change.  Hell breaks a contract, something that has never happened before, Adramalek – Devil’s second in command – is forced to turn on Hell’s own, and a battle between him and Xaphan forces Chesney and co. To the world of the Chikkichikk, a proud and ancient race of warrior dinosaurs from the universe that God made, and then rejected, before he started tinkering with ours.

This book is essentially the final moments in a game of Jenga.  God built the tower of bricks eons ago and ever since Chesney accidently put Hell on strike in the opening pages of the first book, and the resulting actions, he’s been pulling bricks from the tower.

You take a piece from the middle and you put it on the top.

Then, after you pull one too many bricks, the tower collapses.  That is where this book takes place.  With Chesney putting hell on strike, learning about the book, having that info influence others around him – like Nat Blowdell – and pulling Joshua and Simon from the pocket dimensions the tower has become unstable and is about to collapse, taking with it reality itself.  We are watching the aftermath of …well Chesney affect Heaven, Hell and all of reality – this one and past ones.

Hell to Pay is like a game of Jenga.  You pull one too many blocks and the tower fall and this book watches it happen. –

Hell to Pay is a slight jump from the other two books in the series.  It still has its complex working of hell, its interesting take on theology and existence, but looses something in humour and original crime-fighting premise.  Hughes still has some of his trademark humour in the book, like Simon’s rough transition from Biblical time to Las Vegas, like a woman – after torturing a guy – suddenly realizing she really likes doing that and wondering where she can find men who enjoy having it done to them, and the existence of the Chikkichikk, but due to its darker and, slightly, more serious tone.  It’s not a massive jump, like going from Ace Ventura 1 and 2 and then deciding to do Ace 3 as a serious movie, it’s more like going from Hangover 1 and 2 and then jumping to a darker Hangover 3.  Everything you want is there – it just needed to evolve slightly for the finale.

This evolution also affects the storytelling as well.  The first two books had a great deal of focus on Chesney fighting crime as the Actionary but it’s barely touched on in the third.  Chesney still uses his power to fight, this time against the warrior dinosaurs, but not against crime.  This does make sense.  As the stakes are higher so too must be the threats.  Batman fights every low-level thug in Gotham but when Darksied shows up and he unites with the Justice League the Bat lets the lower thugs slide to take down the bigger threats.

Hughes does a brilliant job of introduce new things into his world.  We learn that unless God creates pivots – people to push people forward – that humanity become stagnant and nothing changes.  He used to pick out ordinary folk, Moses or Joseph or Samuel, and give him a nudge.  Then he tried making deeply charismatic people from the cradle – Alexander the Great and Siddhartha Gautama – and then he tried creating wonderworkers.  Hughes tells us how God created three wonderworkers, because people were expecting a messiah, and let us choose one.  One, Joshua, got preachy, got in trouble with the authorities and put to death, the other was Simon Magus and the third was Barabbas.  The devil tempted each of the three and two said no, Barabbas said yes.  These pivots, long since gone, are brilliant new additions to Hughes’ world.  They act not only as a catalyst and a plot device but also as a new villain.

Looking for something original and amazing to read that looks at everything we are and twists it – give To Hell and Back a shot. –

One of my favorite parts of the book was Hughes portrayal of the changed Chesney.  In book one and most of two he was a high-functioning autistic.  He worked in what he called pools-of-light while the rest of the world lay in darkness.  In the second book Joshua inadvertently healed our protagonist of his mental deficiency.  A great deal of Chesney inner thought are based around he has changed.  How the pools of light no longer existed and how the world is now entirely bright.  The world used to be simple to Chesney, never really having emotion to worry about, but now it’s big and complicated and his cure may not be the blessing he thought it was.  It was an intriguing character development, seeing someone being cured and watching them struggle with being normal. 

Then there was the ending.  Dues ex machina literally means “God from the machine” and is used to indicate “a person or event which provides a sudden, unexpected solution to a story”.  A lot of books and shows can suffer from this but when God – capitol G – is an active character in the book dues ex machina comes with the territory.  The ending left me, initially, with a feeling of un-fulfillment.  Then I sat and thought about then ending.  The more I thought about the ending, and all the events that led up to this finale, the more the ending grew on me.  IT wasn’t just a convenient ending; it was the best and only ending for Chesney.  The ending took elements of the character from all the way back in book one and from the depth of the character.  This ending was based around everything that Chesney was before all of this started.

So all in all I adored this book.  It was darker and more serious than I expected but not without taking away from what I loved.  Those who read the first two books from this Canadian author will jump on the third one but for those of you looking for something original and amazing to read that looks at everything we are and twists it – give To Hell and Back a shot.  It is well worth it.

Matthew Hughes can be found at his website The Archonate

Hell to Pay can be found,, and as a DRM-Free Ebook from the Robot Trading Company

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1 Response to Tome of Geek: Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes

  1. Matt Hughes says:

    Thank you for an insightful review. For all the alarums and discursions about God and Hell and the ultimate point of the universe, this was always Chesney’s story. And you got that.

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