Plot: R.J. Blain's amusing, inventive comic fantasy A Chip on its Shoulder is a much wilder novel than its title suggests. It opens as comic urban fantasy, as shapeshifter protagonist Darlene vows revenge on the mafioso who have transformed her brother into a chipmunk. That strange but simple setup soon gets complicated through divine intervention -- in Darlene's world, "divine" beings of all the world's religious pantheons regularly intervene in human affairs. An intriguing (but somewhat convoluted) mission sends Darlene and an abandoned Egyptian child to Hell, a realm Darlene has vowed to take over as a logical step to enlisting divine help on her road to revenge. Much of the rest of the book covers amusing exchanges between Darlene and Lucifer, a sexually frustrated trickster eager to give her almost anything she wants in exchange for a chance to ogle her leopard spots. These scenes are funny and engaging, but they diminish narrative momentum and suspense. The throughline of Darlene's mission weakens as the devil bargains for her hand in marriage and the characters (angels, devils, gangsters, and more) crack wise at each other.
Prose/Style: Blain's comic dialogue is strong enough to hold this playful, discursive novel together, even when the story itself proceeds in fits and starts. Blain excels at offhand comedy and at breezily establishing the rules for this world. Darlene's foul mouth is often amusing, though her profane insults sometimes become repetitious. The comic tone of the novel makes any couple of pages of it a pleasure to read, but the novelist's tendency to favor the amusing over all else limits the story's emotional urgency.
Originality: There's a bevy of urban fantasies in which the divine and infernal consort with humans. Blain's stands out, thanks to the freshness of the rules and details of its world, and the often amusing and surprising chatter and incidents.
Character Development: In the opening chapters, Darlene stands out as a compelling and exciting character with a strong mission. That mission soon becomes muddled, and even with her narrating the story her perspective often gets set aside for lengthy, situational dialogue scenes that only incidentally advance the plot. It's not clear, based on her reactions in these scenes, just how seriously readers should take the dangers she faces.
Date Submitted: August 20, 2020