I keep saying that I am not an urban fantasy fan, and then I read a really good urban fantasy book like Hexed and have to eat my words. Hearne’s novel is simply a great deal of fun, and it’s also quite refreshing. While many of the stock urban fantasy “creatures” are present here, the novel itself avoids doing the same old nonsense, perhaps because the main character is an Irish Druid instead of a tramp-stamped clone. Atticus as a character is not only “new” — in the sense that his character “type” hasn’t been seen very often — but also fascinating. Hearne writes him with a modest sense of self-confidence, which I found rather endearing. Here is a character who has an extraordinary amount of power, who occasionally gets a little cocky about it, but knows when he’s been outmatched (though he wouldn’t tell his enemies as much, seeing how that would be stupid). Since we’re in his head, however, we get to learn who Atticus is in a very intimate way, a feature that gives Hexed an extra edge. First person is hard to do, too, but Hearne manages it with flare. (One example of “flare” I can’t help bringing up, even if it’s not the best written of Hearne’s near-nerdfests, is when Atticus and Oberon, his canine companion, have a brief discussion pertaining to why a local road is suspiciously like Mos Eisley; if you don’t get the joke, then something is wrong with you.)
One of the other interesting aspects of Hexed is how Hearne has taken most, if not all, of the major or memorable forms of religion and inserted them firmly into the real. While Atticus “worships” (though that’s the wrong word) the Celtic gods of his origin, others adhere to a strictly Abrahamic faith (Christianity primarily), while still others stick to their Native American or “dead religion” roots. I couldn’t help finding it endlessly amusing, especially when traditional figures of the various faiths make an appearance in Hearne’s book (such as the Virgin Mary, various Celtic gods, and plenty of mentions of the Norse varieties). Most interesting is what the book suggests about the various human myths: that co-existence is not that far from possible, so long as you accept that a world which takes the supernatural at face value would inevitably present the supernatural as strangely less-than-powerful than our ancestors seem to remember them. Hearne’s world is one in which gods can die, albeit with great difficulty. They all have weaknesses, and many of the gods, true to their mythological nature, play power games to off one another (just as humans do, which perhaps explains why so many of our various versions of mythological faith are about gods and creatures that are suspiciously human in personality). Placing Atticus in the middle of this, in the field of the mortals as opposed to the realms of the gods, lets us imagine (and see) what surviving in a world of vindictive and egotistical deities is really like — granted, with a heavy dose of humor and snark.
The only things that presented problems for me as a reader were: a) the way Atticus sometimes presented information; and b) the distinct feeling that there was supposed to be a book prior to this that I hadn’t read yet. The former is a result of the first person narration, which occasionally falls prey to matter-of-fact telling in chapters. Atticus reminds us too often of details we need to know, without attempting to find other ways to convey the same information; these moments sometimes pulled me out of the story, but they also bothered me because they reflect the fundamental flaw of the first person narrator: namely, that presenting information in FP is uniquely challenging if one intends to avoid the pitfalls of telling.
The latter is a problem that the publishers should have fixed from the start. Hounded, which precedes Hexed chronologically, should be read first, something which I could only find by comparing publication dates. Some of the events that happen in that book are at play, at least peripherally, in Hexed, and most of those events shape Atticus in ways which become important to later volumes. While jumping into the middle doesn’t detract from the strength of Hearne’s story, I would still avoid doing so in exchange for a better reading experience.
But don’t take the previous two paragraphs as a reason for avoiding this book. Unless you dislike first person narration, Hexed‘s main character is a joy to read. Perhaps the only thing lacking for Atticus is character development (in terms of “growth” as opposed to “presentation”). But what I learned about him by the end of the book allowed me to see Hexed for what it is: a darkly humorous game of fiddling with the encyclopedia of myths that have and continue to dominate our modern world. Atticus comes through as a strong character with a fun personality; the myths and legends spill from the page like paint on a godly canvas; and the fast pace and amusing plot spins the (urban) fantasy trope of good vs. evil on its head. And let’s face it: even if stuffy literary critics can’t accept Hexed for what it is, SF/F fandom sure as hell can.