Hell on Wheels
How do I describe this book? It’s like having Oreos with orange juice – delicious when consumed separately, but together they just make for a sour mess. Hell on Wheels combined two things I enjoy (paranormal romances and roller derby) but by throwing them in the middle of a confusing, war torn dimension, the author created a book I had little interest in reading.
Valeda Ronove begins the story as the snobbiest person on Earth – or rather, the snobbiest demon in Hell. She’s a princess of the Ninth Realm and is about to be married to a commoner for the sake of an alliance. Standing at the altar, Valeda can’t stop thinking about how lowborn and unrefined her fiancé is, with his lack of formal education and presumed liking for turnips. She spends the entire ceremony plotting her escape—both because she has no interest in staying with him, and because she’s in dire need of help from her mentor, the archdemon Lore. Years ago her brother Paimon had killed her lover, made incestuous advances toward her, and tortured her when she wouldn’t give in. Those memories were placed behind a mental wall by Lore, for the sake of Valeda’s mental/emotional health, but now the wall is breaking down. Frequent nosebleeds and” sleeps” indicate that she’s running out of time to get the hell out of hell.
Adriel, Captain of Bloodshed and Slaughter, commander of the Seventh Realm’s armies and Valeda’s new husband, is none too pleased when his bride runs off. She may be beautiful, powerful, and come with a promise of more troops, but she’s also extremely troublesome. Even after Adriel finds her and rescues her from the predicament she landed herself in when she disappeared, Valeda refuses to warm up to him. She disdains him and the dimension he calls home, and claims she can’t be of any use to him in his war.
That war, incidentally, is with Valeda’s younger brother Paimon, and it’s what brought the Ninth and Seventh realms to an alliance. Paimon first drained his mother of her powers, crippling the Ninth Realm, messed with Valeda and then went to war with other realms. He also recently put a curse on Adriel, causing him to transform into a hellhound on occasion, which is part of the reason Adriel is so desperate to defeat Paimon and his armies.
All of their actions are driven by these serious concerns (Valeda’s wall and Adriel’s curse) but the secrecy they maintain about these issues dooms the couple to an endless series of misunderstandings.
Things change when they finally get to Adriel’s home world. This is where the battle with Paimon is ongoing, but it’s also home to the demon roller derby league. In Hell this is a game unlike that which we see “topside.” Here players have names like Fannie Tastic, Bad Karma, and Razorclit , they wear underwear on their heads, and booty bumps are an integral part of play. Valeda, who walked around for the first half of the book as a cold woman, only interested in intellectual pursuits and disgusted by the harsh physicality of the women in Adriel’s company, takes one look at the game and finds herself a changed woman. Suddenly she is overcome by a desire to skate, booty bump other demons, and do unspeakable things with her husband. Roller derby is a catalyst for change in Valeda and an improvement in her relationship with Adriel.
Although I appreciated the results of this change – an increased openness, sharing the burdens of their troubles with Paimon, as well as more humor and friendliness in their interactions – I never understood why roller derby brought it about. The sport felt very out-of-place next to the battlefield – many warriors who might otherwise be training spend their time getting injured on the rink instead. Conceptually I understood that this is just a beloved pastime of demons, a way to blow off steam, but it still felt odd.
Part of that is likely due to my difficulty understanding this world. Valeda visits a few different realms over the course of the book, and while some customs are explained, many were simply there, confusing me. For example, Valeda went on about Adriel loving turnips in the beginning, but I never understood why she made that assumption, or why it was bad. Hell on Wheels is the first book set in this particular universe, as far as I can tell, but it reads much more like the fifth or sixth entry in a series, with the author expecting readers to have some background knowledge. That lack of knowledge made it difficult for me to understand the gravity of certain situations, and left me confused instead of amused when the demons ran out to play derby.
Underneath all of these things – past the strange language, beyond the storyline divided between war and roller derby – I think there is likely some potential here. At heart, Valeda and Adriel are just a couple with communication issues. It’s a good starting place for a book, but everything that gets piled on complicates and detracts from that solid core. War, power struggles, and the magical cure-all of demon roller derby are just distractions, at the end of the day. Taken all together it was just too much, too many conflicting flavors – like Oreos and orange juice. Focusing on one or two of these elements would have made for a simpler, better story.
Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to recommend Hell on Wheels. Maybe if you’re looking for a strange meeting of human games, profanity, and hellish creatures, it would be a good read. For me though, there was too much unnecessary material, which ultimately took away from the underlying story.