Ascendance: Dave vs. the Monsters
by John Birmingham
Cover Artist: Larry Rostant
Review by Wes Breazeale
Del Rey Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345539915
Date: 30 June 2015 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
John Birmingham's escapist Dave vs. the Monsters trilogy reaches its conclusion with Ascendance, an action packed book that rarely slows down. Dave Hooper, our exuberant, super-heroic, rednecky champion, continues to protect America from the creatures of the UnderRealms.
Joining Dave in his fight is Russian spy Karen Warat, aka Karin Varatchevsky--who brings more experience and perspective to the whole monster fighting business and helps to get Dave to look at the bigger picture a bit more. Karen has powers of her own, obtained when she killed a demon with a samurai sword. Like Dave, she has similar strength and endurance. But while Dave can slow time as a result of killing a Hunn demon, Karen has the ability to control emotions as a result of killing a Threshrend demon. They complement each other nicely and are doing a bang up job of putting down the enemy, until the enemy starts using their own tactics against them.
The bulk of the book features Dave and Karen responding to incursions in New York City. The battle scenes are well written, tense, and exciting, and the banter between Dave and Karen is some of the most amusing and well written of the series. The progression of their powers while working together and the global implications they have are a pleasure to read.
As with Emergence and Resistance, Ascendance also features chapters that focus on the Horde and their efforts to understand and control what has become of humanity. Leading that charge is Lord Guyuk, a Grymm warrior who has learned to respect humanity and not think of it as cattle. Advising Guyuk is still Threshy, the empath demon who has gained a rather annoying human personality through the ingestion of human brains. Most recently, due to Dave's inability to follow directions, Threshy consumed Professor Compton's brain, thereby gaining Compton's expertise on guerilla warfare tactics. Together, Guyuk and Threshy have a formidable plan to undermine the governmental structures of the world, enabling them to more easily deal with humanity’s technological advantage.
One of the strengths of Birmingham's past work in his Axis of Time and Without Warning trilogies was the focus on complex relationships and the exacting details he put into the geopolitical plots. Emergence had less of that, stripping the plot down to a very bare-bones approach – see monster, smash monster. With Resistance, Birmingham began to somewhat address the larger implications of the existence of Dave and the monsters, but still portrayed Dave as a clueless dummy ruled only by his urges. With Ascendance, Birmingham finally brings his skills to bear, using the presence of Karen Warat to create a deeper Dave, or at least one who is forced to think a bit deeper at times, despite himself.
Birmingham actually notes in his acknowledgements that he was receiving feedback on Emergence as he was working on Resistance and Ascendance. One has to think that some of the feedback must have focusd on the juvenile nature of Dave in the first book. It simply did not feel like a quality Birmingham book--Ascendance does. Unfortunately for the reader, some of the better parts of Emergence were the chapters focusing on the creatures from the UnderRealms. They were somewhat alien, somewhat confused by what they were seeing, and intriguingly written. But beginning midway through Resistance, that aspect of the books began to change. Threshy, the empath demon from Ascendance, absorbed the essence of a young, uneducated doughnut seller. For the rest of the series, despite the more educated people he winds up absorbing, Threshy always speaks with an absurdly annoying attempt at young urban speak by Birmingham. It seems to waver from gamer-speak to hip-hop lingo to stoner drawl, never really settling on a true voice, other than distracting. The attempt might have been there by Birmingham, but it isn’t quite successful.
As a series, Dave vs the Monsters is pretty entertaining. It's not deep in any way, but it certainly moves along at a great clip. Each book builds nicely on the others and by Ascendance it finally feels like a Birmingham book. The battles are impressively described with an exciting cinematic quality and the characters develop enough depth to make them interesting. Small annoyances aside, if the premise of the series sounds like something you'd enjoy, you likely will. Just don't think about it too much!