The pitfalls facing the middle volumes of trilogies are many. They’ve got to deliver the same pleasures as the opening volume without feeling like a retread, and they have to point the way forward without seeming like filler that’s just marking time until we get to the main attraction. I’m pleased to report that Tombstone Blues, Chadwick Ginther’s follow-up to the Aurora-nominated Thunder Road, manages to avoid those traps.
Ted Callan has survived his initial brush with the Nine Worlds, but he knows that going back to anything resembling his old life is off the table. He and Tilda are trying to build a home in Winnipeg where they can safely raise their daughter-to-be. But while he’s still figuring out how to use the powers granted to him by the dvergar for good, he learns that he’s developed a reputation — he’s now known across the Nine as Ófriđur, the weapon forged by the dwarves.
For all that Thunder Road was steeped in Norse lore, it barely scratched the surface. Ted encounters new threats in Tombstone Blues — valkyries, dragons, and nasty elves among them — and higher stakes, too. He’s confronted giants before, but now he’s up against actual gods, including one particularly disgruntled thunder god who’s missing his favourite hammer. He also has more to protect: not only his developing family, but also his mortal friends who are woefully unprepared for the dangers that seem to follow Ted around. Most of the action takes place in Winnipeg, but Ted isn’t stuck defending the castle; when a passage to Hel is discovered conveniently within city limits, he goes on the offensive to beat back the forces of the dead who would invade Midgard.
This latest installment also changes things up by trading in the roadtrip-with-Loki dynamic that drove so much of the previous book (although the GTO is still a main character). The question “where’s Loki?” hangs over the first three-quarters of the book, with Huginn and Muninn, the twin ravens of Thought and Memory, taking over as Ted’s guides to the post-Ragnarök world. Given how much he has to learn, perhaps it’s a good thing that he has somewhat more reliable mentors this time around. Though when the trickster finally makes his appearance, it’s in a fashion worthy of his name.
It’s not all monsters and battles, though. Ted has other challenges to face, like his relationship with Tilda. Their time together has been intense, but when you take a step back from the events they’ve been swept up in, they haven’t known each other very long. She’s gone through a lot of change herself since she first climbed into his car, and Ted sometimes has trouble remembering that despite all the attention he’s drawing, it’s not all about him, and Tilda isn’t just his damsel in distress. Ted is fighting for his life (and that of all humans on earth), but at the same time, his story with Tilda could be playing out the same way it did with his ex-wife, only on an accelerated schedule.
It’s this plot thread that’s perhaps least successful, but I admire the attempt. The book’s action set-pieces could anchor a Peter Jackson movie, but it’s the personal side that adds depth. I look forward to seeing where this goes in the final act, as Ted tries to reconcile being a weapon with being a man.