Readers familiar with Nick Mamatas’s work will know that he’s more than capable of finding a comfortable place between genres—and is more than willing to use that position to make his readers deeply uncomfortable. His 2016 novel I Am Providence riffed on toxic fandom and horror fiction, even as it kept readers guessing as to whether its central mystery would end up having a supernatural solution. The stories in his collection The People’s Republic of Everything offer a good overview of his strengths as a writer: sharp characterization, a terrific sense of place, and a willingness to change things up among them.
In the acknowledgements for his new novel Sabbath, Mamatas alludes to growing up near L’Amour, a storied Brooklyn venue referred to in one article as “a CBGB’s of metal.” Mamatas is making this allusion for a reason: as you might be able to tell from the cover design—including a sword, gothic lettering, and plenty of fire—Sabbath might as well have a blistering guitar solo play as you begin reading. But when I say “Sabbath is a very metal novel,” that’s not to imply that its tone is monolithic. And the impressive trick that Mamatas pulls off here is how he pivots this novel from one style of supernatural fiction to another.
The novel opens in the 11th century. Duke Richard II is in search of a warrior, one Hexen Sabbath, to help fight the Danes. Sabbath himself is a man of large appetites and a larger ego; he humiliates the Duke but agrees to go to war. While in combat, he engages in an act of mercy which leads to his apparent death; he’s whisked away from it by an angel named Abathar, who also asks him to engage in combat. Turns out the Seven Deadly Sins have a penchant for returning to Earth in human form each 777 years and attempting to hasten the apocalypse. And thus, Sabbath is to venture to New York City in the year 2016, hunt the Sins down, and save the world.
Sabbath is quick to note that more than 777 years have passed since being pulled from certain death; what about the angel’s previous champion? Not an option, Abathar tells him. Now, Mamatas has a talent for crime fiction; if the protagonist’s deeply powerful employer in a crime fiction story tells him he need not concern himself with something, it’s quite likely there’s more to it. But the basics seem to check out; Sabbath arrives in 2016 New York, links up with struggling gallerist Jennifer Zelenova, acquires a sword, and begins hunting down sins in human form.
From the outset, it’s clear that there’s a larger concern at work above and beyond the fairly straightforward “legendary warrior hunts evil beings” setup. It would also be deeply monotonous if Sabbath simply hacked and slashed his way through 2016 en route to saving the day. And so Sabbath gradually becomes more complex: if the opening chapters are some sort of epic symphonic metal, Sabbath slowly shifts into a bleaker, weirder register. (Alternately? It shifts from Rhapsody to Bell Witch.)
The addition of Jennifer’s friend (and occasional hook-up) Miriam to the cast helps complicate matters, as she has a background in theology. That the novel is set in 2016 also becomes more relevant as the novel reaches its conclusion: there is a bizarre, irreverent take on that year’s election to be found in these pages. But the moment in which this novel genuinely clicked for me came during the scene in which Sabbath, Jennifer, and Miriam confront the personification of Gluttony. Mamatas creates an unnerving portrait of encroaching wrongness as the scene builds and builds and builds. Up until this point, this novel has been more of an action-adventure narrative with horror elements; at this point, something shifts, and the horror elements take center stage. And being in a horror story means that all matter of narrative expectations are off the table.
Sabbath has an interesting history off the page as well. The concept began as a graphic novel from creator Matthew Tamao. In a recent interview, Mamatas notes that his version of the story differs significantly from Tamao’s. (Full disclosure: I have not read the earlier version of it.) There’s a cinematic element to Sabbath, but it’s also unafraid to explore some deeply weird places. In some ways, that echoes the culture shock that its protagonist experiences by leaping centuries into the future. It’s a nice narrative trick, and in this novel, Mamatas shows off plenty of them.
Sabbath is available from Tor Books.