THE IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, of which Hounded is the first installment, have been on my radar for some time now, but I held them off as a kind of rainy day read. They looked funny, they were based on Irish myth (a personal favorite), and on the whole I thought I’d best save them for a time when I needed a nice, relaxing read.
I was pleasantly surprised on some counts and validated on others. Hounded is a fast-moving, funny little book. It concerns Atticus O’Sullivan, an ancient druid in the modern world with a famous magical sword (Fragarach the Answerer is only slightly less popular in some circles than Excalibur) and the enduring enmity of the Celtic quasi-god Aengus Og. The plot is straightforward and really blurs past as Atticus gets deeper and deeper into glorious trouble.
Hearne knows how to spin an easy-going yarn, and his research into Irish mythology is impressively comprehensive. He clearly went above and beyond the call of duty on that score, always a good sign in an urban fantasy author in particular. Atticus O’Sullivan as a narrator is fairly witty and lively (a requisite characteristic in urban fantasy lately), though the jokes occasionally have that strained, slightly over-the-top feel that can crop up when a character has to be funny over a long stretch of text (the wedgie scene in particular comes to mind as a bit of gratuitous “look, he’s funny! Look! Did everyone see?” material). The overall cast of characters is charming, particularly Oberon the Irish wolfhound, who plays all the same notes as usual for the urban fantasy “cute sidekick”, but does it very well.
There is a noticeable eau-de-Dresden about the proceedings, mind you. By this I mean (for the uninitiated) that it feels a lot like THE DRESDEN FILES by Jim Butcher. IRON DRUID is very much its own world, but I would not be surprised at all if its original inspiration was Butcher. Part of the issue is of course simply that urban fantasy has never exactly been a subgenre overflowing with originality as far as tropes are concerned, but from the snark to the mixed-and-mashed mythologies to the frequent beatings to the sensual deities, I did find myself occasionally giving the text a knowing smirk. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Harry Dresden doesn’t have a corner on the witty-magician-with-oversized-dog-and-hot-apprentice-fighting-mythological-creatures market, certainly, and I think Atticus O’Sullivan does certain things better. On the other hand, Butcher’s had longer to refine his formula (and his fanbase), and the similarities between the two works may lead readers to (justly or unjustly) view Atticus as basically Dresden Lite.
I’d argue that Hearne’s plotting is actually better than that of the early Dresden books, but on the other hand, Atticus’s adventures in general lack the sense of urgency with which Butcher usually invests his novels. I was never particularly concerned for Atticus because he’s just so supercapable, to the point of smugness at times. Where Harry Dresden’s various neuroses tend to keep him out of Mary-Sue territory, Atticus slips perilously close to the red line at times. He never quite gets there, but the book is not as suspenseful as it might have been otherwise. Even in the combat sequences, the novel is more good-naturedly cheesy than pulse-pounding, entertaining and well-done without being necessarily gripping. Something else to watch for is that, while Hearne is good at plotting and characterization and his vocabulary is fine, his prose is often a touch uninspiring, something which I hope improves as time goes on.
Overall, though, I’m pleased with Hounded. It was worth the price, at least, and I’ll probably purchase Hexed sometime in the near future, though I don’t feel any particular rush about the matter. Perhaps that’s the best way to sum up the book. I wouldn’t seize your coat and sprint for the bookstore, but if you happen to find yourself in the stacks with nothing else in mind, why not wend your way over toward a bit of Irish goofiness?