BOOK REVIEW: The Unholy Cause — Loved it!

To borrow a copyrighted but well-recognized phrase, ‘two thumbs way up!’ for The Unholy Cause by Joe Schreiber, the latest novel to be based on The CW’s hit series Supernatural.  Tie-in novels face certain challenges just by their nature.  After all, an author might be playing in his own sandbox but he is playing with someone else’s characters.  In order for the tie-in novel to work, it needs to incorporate those elements which have brought success to the television series it is based on.  And in this regard, I strongly believe that The Unholy Cause truly succeeds.

Supernatural, the television series, has captivated viewers for five seasons in the way it is able to flawlessly blend horror, scares, action, suspense, urban legends, comedy, and one of the best brother relationships to come around on our screens in a long time.  The challenge for tie-in novels has been to be able to incorporate into the written words all these distinctive and successful elements of the Series.  One previous excursion excelled in the mystery and horror, another outlined a good hunt, and yet another provided adequate portrayals of established characters.  To date, it is my opinion that none of the other novels were able to fully blend all the elements into one product, especially the most important being that which is the driving foundation of the series, the family dynamic of the Winchester brothers.  The Unholy Cause is the novel that fans have been waiting for which does indeed succeed in incorporating all those distinguishing elements.  In fact, it does it so well that this adventure could easily be adapted into an episode of the Series, without missing a beat.  It is indeed just like reading an episode!

The novel begins with a scene very reminiscent of the TV show.  When you least expect it, a gruesome act takes place in all its bloody goriness.  Author Joe Schreiber also seems to be the master of misdirection.  Just when you think you know what situation you are visualizing, he pulls the rug from under you and goes into an unexpected direction.

The strange and bloody act quickly becomes a job for Sam and Dean Winchester who have made it their life’s mission to hunt down those things that go bump in the night, and thus keep the rest of us safe.  Following the grisly opening scene and after a creepy dream sequence for Sam involving a visit from Lucifer, the brothers are off to Mission’s Ridge, Georgia to investigate the disappearance of five year old Toby Gamble, which sets events into motion.  I asked the author if this character’s name pays homage to adored series writer Sera Gamble, and he confirmed that it definitely did.  He also whispered that he wanted to include a character named Whedon, but that changed at the last minute.  As the story continues, an old hunting acquaintance, Rufus, makes a brief appearance and provides a tip for a future stop in their hunt, Ilchester – Maryland.  The super observant fans of the series should immediately make the connection, but in case they do not, it is provided a few paragraphs later.

As the brothers arrive in Georgia and make their way through the Civil War re-enactment area, the rich–yet succinct–descriptions of the locale and historical details easily place us at the scene, even if we have never actually seen such an event ourselves.  To add to this authenticity, the author admitted to researching like crazy.  A key player that we are introduced to early on is the Sheriff, who is strong-willed and comes with an attitude that immediately gives us some insight into this character.  When it is time to finally meet the Sheriff, there is an amusing guessing game between Sam and Dean in regards to what the Sheriff might look like. But having been exposed to Schreiber’s misdirection beforehand, we don’t fall for it and can see where it is heading.

Castiel, our quirky angel that has been cut off from most of his heavenly powers, makes appearances throughout. The character is exactly as we know him to be and does what we would expect him to do.  Castiel seems to pop in and out to drop little hints and pertinent info where needed, but it makes you wonder ‘what the heck is the point of having an angel around when he never shows up when you *really* need him’, as in times of great danger.  This is not a characterization for which I blame the author.  The responsibility lies with the Series, which tries to carefully balance having an angel around that can swoop in at any time to save the brothers. To prevent him from becoming a deus-ex-machina, they had him be somewhat rogue and cut off from heaven’s powers, so they could therefore pick and choose the abilities and moments that would best fit their story.  It’s an awkward construct, but it works nonetheless.

The story is built around the idea of the Judas noose — the same one Judas used to hang himself, and which is rumored to have magical/supernatural qualities.  The job is to find the noose and either destroy it or return it to its holding cell.  But before the Winchesters find it, they must battle a multitude of demons as all hell breaks loose in the town, with lots of death and destruction since that is what demons do best.  There are several twists involving original characters, and at times established characters seem to serve as convenient plot devices, as in the case of beloved father-figure and family friend, Bobby Singer.  Bobby is called upon a few times to provide research info, but since the Series has basically put him out of commission with an injury early in the season that has him confined to a wheelchair, that’s pretty much all he can be at this time.

What follows as the novel progresses is a riveting, gruesome, and creepy mystery that will keep you turning pages. It had a good plot and addictive pacing. Horror and suspense were blended well with lighter moments and hints of comedy. And just like the television series, there are moments where it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Moments where your mind quickly wants to make a comparison to an already-existing scene or movie, but before you can do so, the author has one of the players do it for you.  Almost as if saying … ‘yeah, I knew you were gonna make the comparison, so I beat you to the punch’.

I really enjoyed this book!  The original characters presented were all well written, and the events and storyline were creepy, mysterious, and often action-packed. The way things were introduced, the pace of the hunt, and the resolution could easily be adapted into an episode.  The banter between the brothers is spot on.  Fans of the television series will have no trouble hearing the voices of Sam and Dean Winchester as they read through the dialogue, such as Sam’s indulgence and logical side, and Dean’s snark and wise-cracks — even if there were early moments where these were overused.  Other little touches include the use of rock musician names as aliases, several shout-outs to Classic Rock, and many brief moments where there is no doubt that the brotherly relationship is back on the road to recovery, even though it has been on the rocks lately in the Series.  Of course, the time frame involved in writing and publishing a novel prevents any groundbreaking revelations from being included, but fans rarely look to such tie-in products to provide that.

I must also give kudos to Joe for being brave in setting his story in the early part of season five.  The fifth season brings a lot of good dramatic baggage with it in terms of mythology, personal changes within the characters, and established groundwork.  One issue that Joe did not shy away from was Dean’s post-traumatic stress due to his trip to Hell and subsequent return.  Joe was able to blend many layers of season five within his story in a natural manner resulting in a precise, solid and engaging novel that pulls no punches.  No doubt his discussions with the Supernatural creative team played an important role in accuracy and continuity. I enjoyed his creativity and characterizations so much that I would even go as far as to say that should the Series be in need of another writer on their creative team, Joe would fit the bill quite nicely.

Does that mean that everything is perfection?  No, as hardly any product is.  There were a few inconsistencies that are bound to raise questions and cause the highly observant die-hard fans to pull a John Winchester and start ripping the author a new one.  I mentioned a few to Joe and gave him the opportunity to address them, to which his sly response was, “Aha!  These and several other artfully concealed inconsistencies were deliberately left in the book as a puzzle for careful readers to unravel as they go.  Prizes will be meted out accordingly.”  I can only assume that prizes will include extra cookies and apple pie!  Oh, and I guess it would be proper to thank Joe for making it such that I will never look at a plate of an Italian meal quite the same from this point on due to one of his more colorful descriptions.  I think I’m scarred for life!  But then again, Supernatural has a way of doing that.

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The Unholy Cause can be ordered from Amazon or directly from the publisher, Titan Books. Feel free to browse the many offerings they have for a variety of shows, movies and genres.  The novel will be available at bookstores starting Tuesday, May 4, 2010.