Unnatural Selection by Tim Lebbon is the 4th standalone novel in the Hellboy series of books, based on the characters from the comic book series of the same name. As with the third novel, this book is apparently considered to be non-canon with the comic book series. Mythical creatures have suddenly appeared all around the world: a werewolf stalks the streets of Baltimore, a dragon perches on the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, a giant alligator lurks in the canals of Venice, and many more. Hellboy and his fellow BPRD agents (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence) are spread thin, trying to contain the situation before more lives are lost. As things go from bad to worse, however, they come to learn that the emergence of these creatures across the globe is simply a diversion, meant to distract from a more concerted plot that, if successful, could change the world forever.
Though I’ve been slowly making my way through these books regardless, I chose to read this when I did because I desired something light and fun. In this respect, I got a lot of what I wanted from this book. Without any unnecessary buildup, the novel thrusts the reader into the action at the outset. Hellboy combats a dragon, Abe a giant alligator, Liz Sherman a phoenix, and new character Abby Paris confronts a werewolf. It all made for entertaining action-packed prose, some of them emerging triumphant, others frustrated and defeated, leaving me with a good amount of intrigue as to what must come next. The sense of being overwhelmed is captured fairly well too, as the BPRD is meant to deal with things on a much smaller scale. The characters also grapple a little with what the very public appearances of these creatures will mean for the world going forward.
There isn’t a whole lot of depth to the way characters reflect on the whole situation, but it did make for enjoyable banter in between the more action-focused sequences. Lebbon does a good job of capturing the voices of the core characters from the series, particularly Liz. In other novels and short stories where we see things from her perspective, I’ve noticed a tendency to have her continually dwell on the emotional baggage from her troubled past. While it does come up in this book, as it is central to her character, I appreciated that it didn’t feel like a belabored point. She was much more present in what was going on. Hellboy is his usual gruff yet affable, tough-as-nails self, not particularly challenged as a person by the events, but nevertheless fully invested in being part of the solution.
The only thing that felt a little off all-around were the moments where characters seemed unusually hot for each other, or just overly chummy, especially in the case of Hellboy and Liz. It didn’t hurt the story, per se, but outside of the films the two are not romantically entangled, and the hints of a buried attraction between the two felt oddly focused on, especially in the ways they could be touchy-feely. There were undertones of attraction or sexual tension between other characters as well that didn’t really add anything, muddied my understanding of relationships, and otherwise felt out of place. Hellboy flirting with a professor in Rio after surviving a thrashing from a dragon was amusing, though, so it wasn’t all out of place. It amounted to an odd, admittedly slight, fixation in the way the characters were written that just stuck out to me.
The story around Hellboy is actually fairly straightforward, and almost felt obligatory. He’s on his way to stop the bad guy, fighting monsters along the way. The most interesting characters were actually those original to this novel, most especially Abby Paris. A werewolf working for the BPRD, Abby’s very existence is secretly tied to the villain himself, magician and scientist Benedict Blake, who brought her into existence along with all the other creatures. I connected with Abby the most as she struggled with an impending transformation, and the lust for human flesh that comes with it, nevertheless striking off on her own to deal with her creator in order to preserve the life she has made for herself, seeing her origins as shameful.
Most the world-building takes place through her perspective too, establishing the concept of the Memory, a dimension where all old mythical creatures wound up after the collective unconsciousness of humanity moved on from them. It was a neat concept, though a little unclear as it is suggested that the creatures were always a construct of the human mind and ended up trapped there as humans moved on from them, yet to retrieve them Blake required pieces of these creatures that can be found throughout the world, suggesting they did in fact exist once, but died out long ago.
Intercut with the story in modern times (1997) are chapters about Richard and Galileo Blake, the two sons of Benedict Blake, who traveled the world using an old tome and their own magic powers to track down the remnants of all these old creatures and magically transport them back to their father. Their storyline amounts to very little, other than introducing a sudden rogue element for Hellboy to vanquish at the end, but I really enjoyed their banter and travails as they sought out these old traces of long dead monsters. As much as I love Hellboy, I honestly kind of wish the story had been more about Abby and these brothers. They were new and interesting in a way that could have carried the novel more. Hellboy gets plenty of development in the comic books, I would have been fine with him being relegated to a more supporting role.
Hellboy: Unnatural Selection is in no way a remarkable novel, but it made for some action-packed, monster-fighting fun that was exactly what I was looking for. The story with the main characters was serviceable, if simplistic, and the plot around the new characters elevated the book just above general mediocrity. If you only have a slight inkling as to who Hellboy is, I would actually recommend checking this book out. It doesn’t ask a lot of you in terms of knowing the source material, telling a story accessible to pretty much anybody except those who have never heard of the series or the character.
My Rating: 3 out of 5