It’s interesting that I should be dealing with two different sequels this week to two different first novels I also reviewed in the past, because they provide a tidy lesson on the good and bad ways to go about writing such sequels in the first place. For while ST Gulik’s Sex, reviewed yesterday, felt as if he had gotten to the last page of its predecessor, Birth, and had just kept on writing the exact same story while his publisher went about the business of printing and releasing the first 200 pages, leading to a book that was hard to get excited about and difficult to write a compelling review for, Dean Swinford’s Death Metal Epic Book Two: Goat Song Sacrifice is a sequel much more in the style of how we think of them, transporting our hero into an entirely different location and milieu than in book 1, and raising the stakes as far as both his troubles and the level of success that’s in his grasp.
To remind you, the first volume is a clever blend of coming-of-age tale and historical record of the death metal scene of the early 1990s, in which we watch our hapless twentysomething hero Azrael stumble through a series of indignities concerning several metal bands in his south Florida hometown, culminating in a poorly funded and ill-fated tour of northern Europe organized by his fly-by-night record company, the novel ending with him running out of money, getting stuck in Belgium, but having become friends with several local death-metal figures who are internationally known and revered among the tiny niche community of fans around the planet (but for more on the real people and events that Swinford is fictionalizing here, see the 1998 journalism book Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind).
That’s essentially where volume 2 picks up, as “Azrael” (now simply going by his birth name of David Fosberg) decides to stick around Belgium for the time being, joining a new band with worshipped icon (and mom-couch-surfing, possibly autistic) Svart, getting ingratiated into “ground zero” of the international death metal community while struggling with women, learning the local language, and wondering when they’ll stop being a band that exists only on paper and actually write their first song.
That’s really the saving grace of these books, is that they’re not just detail-perfect looks back at the ’90s death-metal scene but also sneakily grander tales about arrested-development twentysomethings finally maturing into adults (kicking and screaming the entire way, mind you, but still). And that’s why book 2 here is a worthy sequel to book 1, because Swinford goes to the trouble of showing David actually growing a little bit and learning something from the endless disasters of the previous volume, becoming a wiser and more skeptical musician who is simultaneously traversing the minefields of DSL (Dutch as a Second Language), dating again after a bad breakup, and renting his first-ever EU apartment.
The results are engaging and charming, and inspires you to root strongly for our hero’s success; and that makes the book’s surprise climax all the more gripping, setting us up for a coming book 3 that I’m highly looking forward to. I’ll of course be reviewing that one too when the time arrives; but for now, I strongly recommend getting caught up with these first two quickly readable volumes. Remember, you don’t have to know anything about death metal to enjoy these universal stories about the underground arts and growing up; but if you do, your enjoyment of these well-researched books will be even that much fuller.
Out of 10: 9.3