John M. Ford’s The Last Hot Time

6321B776-A7A1-4A57-89CA-B357BD29A4EBListen close, for I’m about to tell you a story that sounds familiar, yet is as different from what you know as rain is from snow. It’s a story of magic and love, power and loss, life and death. In a world not far removed from ours, the world of Faery has returned, in all its cold, terribly majestic glory, and it has brought change. It has brought the Shadow, a borderworld between the world of man and the world of myth. A world where science and magic both work, but never so reliably as good old-fashioned cunning and drive. Men and elves coexist in a curious, odd blend of culture, partially stolen from what we know, and partially taken from what they give us. It’s a world for the lost, the ambitious, the ones with nothing left to lose and everything to gain.

I told you it sounded familiar. The more astute among you, the ones who’ve been around for my other reviews, will undoubtedly begin to nod knowingly, mutter amongst yourselves, think you know where I’m going with this. The Bordertown series, edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold, right? Wrong. I told you it was different. For all its familiarity, The Last Hot Time by John M. Ford is -not- Bordertown. It’s Bordertown with the serial numbers scraped off and placed in the Witness Protection Program. But it’s also its own creature, and it’s on those merits that we’ll judge it.

Danny Holman, paramedic at large, has taken to traveling across the country, leaving behind the comfortable familiarity of Iowa for the uncertainty of the future. A chance encounter places his service and his aid at the need of the enigmatic Mr. Patrise, who serves as a shadowy sort of vigilante justice and power in the borderland called the Levee. Before he quite knows what’s happened, Danny has a new identity — the dashing young Doc Hallownight — and a job serving Mr. Patrise as resident medic and aide. Joining a crew of colorful, mysterious people, he helps Mr. Patrise pursue a series of often nebulous goals for the betterment of their society, all the while foiling the equally shadowy plans of the man known only as “Whisper Who Dares.”

It’s a good life, if occasionally dangerous. There are places to explore, culture to experience, and women to be courted, and people to be healed. And Doc will soon have to deal with the power growing within him, a power that could be used to help others … or to control and destroy them. In the Levee, things can go either way.

The Last Hot Time projects an interesting theme: elves and humans mingling in a world clearly born from the ’20s and ’30s, with a Prohibition-age, jazz music, flappers and Tommy guns, strange deals in the back room along with illicit games of cards, sort of feel to it. It’s cultured and sophisticated, glamorous and fantastic, luxuriant and mysterious, and all the while comes off as more than a bit decadent. This is a far step removed from the down and dirty music-punk youth culture atmosphere of the Bordertown series, delivering an entirely different story and tone altogether. Frankly, Ford comes off as making this all sound -cool-. Men in nice suits dancing with women in flapper dresses to jazz and torch songs. People racing around in roadsters, firing Tommy guns. Mysterious plots in the darkness.

The Last Hot Time is a good, fun, powerful read, that blends the worlds together and tells a sharp-edged, crisp story. It’s got a good pulp feel to it, evocative of Doc Savage and his companions, but with the added bonus of throwing in some fantasy trappings, which in turn reminds me of Aaron Allston’s Doc Sidhe and Sidhe-Devil novels. I greatly enjoyed this book, but found its resemblance to the Bordertown books to be a little distracting, and a certain brief anecdote told by one character only serves to strengthen that uneasiness. This book could have been stronger if it had felt entirely original. That aside, this book should appeal to any urban fantasy fan, as well as those who enjoy a pulp feel. Give this one a look-through.

(Tor, 2000)