The Clown Service, by Guy Adams

review published on November 3, 2013. Reviewed by Erin Britton

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

After an unfortunate bog up in the Middle East, decidedly middling secret agent Toby Greene is sent back to London in disgrace with nought but a concussion dished out by a man previously considered to be the most fragile flower in espionage to console him. After being debriefed (and considerably diminished) by his section chief, Toby discovers that his future is likely to be even grimmer than exile to a permanent desk job since he is instead being transferred to Section 37 and, as the chief informs him with no little relish, “if the Security Service is the Circus, then Section 37 is where we keep the clowns.”

It turns out that Section 37 is that branch of the Service dedicated to protecting the nation from paranormal, preternatural, supernatural type dangers. Basically, the type of outlandish yet undeniably dangerous to national order events that would give all other branches of the Security Service and law enforcement a permanent twitch in their institutional eye. Apparently, otherworldly means of intrigue and espionage (and the occasional assassination) where popular and extremely well-funded on both sides during the Cold War but have fallen out of favour in recent times. So much so in fact that Toby Greene is the only employee at Section 37 and so, when the timey-wimey stuff hits the fan, it’s up to just him and Section 37 chief August Shinning to save the country, the world and, possibly, the laws of physics.

Toby Greene may begin The Clown Service as a bit of a sad sack – he is the only agent in the history of MI6 to be knocked out with a bust of Beethoven after all – but, after overcoming surprisingly quickly his understandable scientism about the remit of Section 37, he grows to become quite the hero. Sure he’s sometimes annoyingly understated when a bit more freaking out would have actually be situationally appropriate but he does come out with some excellent one-liners and manages to make navigating the astral plane look like something anyone could do so long as they had the right drunken mate to guide them. Having Toby be more perplexed/sceptical about everything – he does become very blasé about the supernatural very early on (although this could be due to the aforementioned head injury?) – might have led to a more interesting contrast with August Shinning but they still work very well together.

As the boss (and, for a long time, the sole member) of Section 37, Shinning has unsurprisingly seen a lot of strange stuff and so it’s no surprise that he takes the evil machinations of Olag Krishnin – baddest baddy ever to be disavowed by the Soviet Union – in his stride. Toby should probably have been less certain about the whole thing and so Shinning’s confidence in him as an agent would have seemed more prophetic. Fortunately, the relative ease with which Shinning and Toby suss out what’s behind the sudden outbreak of reanimated corpses that has struck London can be explained, in part at least, by the fact that Shinning and Krishnin have history. Also for this reason, the narrative of The Clown Service is split between two time periods so that the back-story of Shinning’s previous encounter with Krishnin is told alongside the contemporary investigation by Shinning and Toby.

While Toby Greene and August Shinning are good central characters, some of the supporting cast of The Clown Service certainly merit special mention too. April Shinning provides a lot of the comedy relief but she’s also a very intriguing character. It would be interesting to know more about the work she has done for the government, how she has come to have such influence over important figures, and what role she has previously played in Section 37 business. Tamar is an important character (possibly the most important if The Clown Service leads on to a series) who remains very much an enigma. It’s clear that she has had a tragic past and chooses to maintain a troubled present and also that she has mad combat skills but her knowledge of the transmundane and her exact relationship with Shinning is less clear. It seems likely that there is a lot more to be said about Tamar.

The Clown Service is an exciting urban fantasy novel that has enough mystery to keep readers guessing and plenty of humour to humanise the characters and break up the tension. Some elements of the set-up and story seem familiar from reading books by the likes of Jim Butcher, Mike Carey and Ben Aaronovitch but Guy Adams does have his own take on this increasingly popular genre. It will be interesting to see where Toby Greene and August Shinning go from here.


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