Here’s the thing; every monster story is true. Vampires? Goblins? Werewolves? The weird gnarly stuff made entirely out of teeth that no one’s survived meeting long enough to write a TV series about? ALL OF THEM. All here, all right under our noses. Next to us on the subway. Ordering coffee ahead of us in Starbucks. Laughing too loudly at the new Resident Evil movie.
The obvious choice to take in a situation like this is to tell the story of the department that deals with all of these monsters. There’s a reason the Men in Black keep coming back after all, even if they won’t let you remember. There are a million stories in the urban fantasy city, and almost all of them involve how difficult it is being a monster, or a cop who investigates monsters, or a monster cop.
Enter Matt Wallace, stage left, with the world’s most badass collection of culinary professionals behind him.
Matt, like his Ditch Diggers co-host Mur Lafferty, has a unique perspective on Urban Fantasy. Where Mur’s Shambling Guide books focus on the difficulties of writing the official Travel Guide for the underworld, Matt’s Sin Du Jour novellas focus on how difficult it is to cater for New York City’s supernatural community (and the answer is very, VERY difficult, not to mention dangerous).
That’s where the Stocking and Receiving Team come in. One of the two divisions within the company, their job is to acquire the best produce for Sin Du Jour events. In the realm of normal catering this involves a lot of research, a lot of travel, and a lot of tasting. In the world of Sin Du Jour? It tends to involve explosives, knock-down, drag-out fights with a combat-ready Easter Bunny, and the horrific truth about just where chicken nuggets come from. The team, led by former Special Forces Operator Ritter, includes former naval officer and demolitions specialist Cindy, unkillable human gullet Moon, and Hara. Hara is very, very, very large. Hara doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t need to. Over the course of the first three novellas, the S&R team go to a version of Hell, fight popular icons of national holidays, and almost, but not quite, die. More than once. They’re the tip of the boning knife, the edge of the cleaver. They’re the invisible element of Sin Du Jour, without whom the entire catering enterprise collapses. They’re also massive, foul-mouthed fun and some of the best characters Matt Wallace has ever created. He excels at writing complicated, highly competent characters, and S&R’s members are no exception. All of them, especially Moon and Cindy, would be one-note pieces of talking scenery in the hands of a lesser writer, but here, they’re real, complicated, likeable people. Even Moon.
Oh, and while you’re reading these novellas, go ahead and try not to picture Christian Kane (from Leverage and The Librarians) as Ritter. I dare you. I DOUBLE DOG DARE YOU.
Sin Du Jour’s catering staff are no less fun, either. The series’ leads, Lena and Darren, are a pair of blacklisted chefs who see an opening at the company and jump in with both feet. Lena is ex-military, endlessly competent, fundamentally grounded, and just a little unsettled. She’s angry that she isn’t further along in her career, uncomfortable with her position, and looking for a fight. Sin Du Jour hands her that very thing on her first day and Lena, being Lena, responds with laconically belligerent disgust—and then signs up, all the way.
Darren is the more placid of the two and, certainly in Envy of Angels, he comes dangerously close to being the designated victim but never crosses that line. Darren’s the book’s control—a good chef, but rattled by the bizarre world he’s thrown into. His arc across the series is very much about getting his feet under him, and as a result he’s the character you’ll find yourself identifying with and standing next to (and, on occasion, hiding behind).
The line crew that Lena and Darren join are just as varied, fun, and gloriously skewed as the organisation itself: Nikki, the pastry chef, is a joyously badass pastry artiste who gets the single most deliriously fun moment in the series to date in Lustlocked. Roland, the team alchemist, is a Matt Ryan-esque pile of mostly clean clothes and bottomless alcohol. White Horse is the company’s heavy magic user, who’s there in case any ingredients act up. His granddaughter, Little Moon, is there in case White Horse acts up. Boosha is the company’s knowledge base; impossibly old, clearly not fully human, and staggeringly grumpy. Dorsky is the executive chef’s number two and a colossal asshole, and Jett, the events manager for the company is precise, immaculate, and absolutely the last person on the face of God’s Earth you want to mess with. And then there’s Bronko: clever, enthusiastic, kind, and with something missing behind his eyes. Chef Bronko Luck has seen some very, very bad things. Now he caters for them.
I mention all these characters—and this isn’t the full cast—because Matt Wallace is a character-centric author. This group of people, how they interact, and how they deal with their profoundly strange jobs, forms the core of the series. We see the world through their eyes, observe how it changes them, and discover the very human cost of this inhuman and amazing job. There are few authors who can make you care about people as quickly as Matt Wallace can, and this group is his absolute best yet.
And they need to be, given the challenges the author throws at them. Envy of Angels deals with Lena and Darren’s first job, helping Sin Du Jour cater a demon event. An event where the main course needs to be angel meat. Straight away the ethical concerns of the job are front and centre; how do you do it? Can you do it? What does angel meat even taste like? As the S&R team head off to the most ludicrous and horrifying heist you’ll encounter this year, Lena and Darren prep for their new job and the rest of the team try and work out how to pass it off as “real” food. This is the best pilot episode the series could hope for, diving into the workplace dynamics and the challenges of the job with both feet. It’s basically a supernatural-themed culinary heist movie in book form, one which culminates in a terrifying banquet and a moment of absolute glory for Pacific the busboy.
Lustlocked sees the team given what should be a much easier assignment: catering a Goblin wedding. But the thing is…goblins aren’t ugly. At all. Goblins are the beautiful people, and there are a lot of them in then public eye.
That Goblin King you’re thinking of? YES. Him too. That happens.
The lighter-hearted event is neatly balanced with both a major security breach back at Sin Du Jour itself and some serious escalation in the various relationships between the team members. It also steadily raises the tempo until the ending, which offsets an actual, honest to goodness food fight of the very best sort with not one but two separate emotional gut punches. Envy of Angels is the series getting its feet under it; Lustlocked is the series hitting its stride.
And Pride’s Spell is Sin du Jour hitting a dead run: a newly reinvigorated Bronko takes the team to L.A. to cater a studio event and things go very south, very fast. The S&R team get jumped by an increasingly ridiculous stream of popular holiday-related icons, giving Matt and Ritter alike a chance to cut loose with some serious, and very funny, violence. Meanwhile, the line crew prepares the greatest food of their careers only to find out that they might be next on the menu. The previous two novellas fold back in with ridiculously impressive narrative tidiness to create a situation that puts the team at a complete disadvantage and in the worst trouble they’ve ever been in. Even then, Wallace works in some wonderful character grace notes, especially for the S&R members, as the trap closes tighter and tighter around them.
The mark of genuinely great action writing is the moment where it stops and you realise just how much the vice has been tightened while you were engrossed and unaware. The end of Pride’s Spell contains one of the best, most heart-rending moments of post-action silence you’ll ever read. It’s unflinching, clear-eyed, and one of the high spots of Matt Wallace’s career to date…
And there are four novellas still to come.
Sin Du Jour is unlike any other urban fantasy on the market. It’s as precise and immaculately designed as the company’s gourmet offerings and has the same calluses on its knuckles as many of its characters. It’s endlessly, effortlessly funny, fiercely horrific, and crammed full of your new favourite characters. Check out the series, and savour these books—you’ll find that Matt Wallace, like Sin Du Jour, has excellent taste.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.