Posts Tagged ‘urban fantasy’

Some of my favourite authors are favourites not because of their books but because of other things they do. I’ve only read books by half the folks on Writing Excuses, but I think they’re all brilliant people because of the advice they give. Similarly, I’m a huge fan of Mur Lafferty because of her podcasts, which have given me great writing advice, encouragement, and perspective on balancing writing with depression. It seemed only right, sooner or later, to start reading her books, and I started with The Shambling Guide to New York City.

Books Within Books

Like The Hitchhikers Guide to the GalaxyThe Shambling Guide to New York City takes its name from a book within the book. Zoë, the story’s protagonist, is a travel writer who’s recently moved to New York. There she finds work in a hidden subculture of zombies, vampires and other supernatural beings, editing a travel guide for the undead.

While it’s not as comedic in its focus as The Hitchhikers GuideThe Shambling Guide does share some of that book’s whimsy and humour, and its central perspective of a character adrift in a world that is both strange and frustratingly familiar. Zoë has to deal with sexual harassment from an incubus, the bloody menu at a vampire restaurant, the problem of someone stealing the zombies’ brains from the office fridge, and much more. It’s a book of culture clash, diversity and discovery in what might well be the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

Zoë’s a likeable character, flawed but good-natured and determined. The world building is also top notch, cramming in all sorts of details. This book does a great job of what the in character book is meant to do – introducing you to New York’s monstrous side.

Events Get in the Way

Of course there’s more to the plot than just Zoë writing. She gets tangled up in battling a conspiracy by dark forces, and for me that was the weakest part of the book. It’s not that the plot doesn’t make sense. It’s not that it isn’t earned – it neatly ties together Zoë’s personal life and the world that’s laid out in the story. We’re even prepared for it from early on with the introduction of Granny Good Mae, a mentor who trains Zoë to fight monsters.

The problem is that it’s just not what I most wanted. From a book with such a whimsical concept, I  didn’t want an epic, city-shattering plot. I wanted it to stick with the little challenges of writing a travel book about the undead, and that got sidelined by the bigger story. I realise that most people will probably prefer it that way, but I was a little disappointed.

It’s still an enjoyable book. There are oddball characters and situations, a great setting, and even if the plot wasn’t what I expected it was still a cool idea. I like both Zoë and her creator enough that I’ll be checking out the sequel. And with my expectations recalibrated, I expect to enjoy that one even more.

* * *

On a thematically very different note, my collection of short historical and alternate history stories From a Foreign Shore is free on the Kindle today and tomorrow. It’s no shambling guide, but it features some odd culture clashes, including a Viking re-evaluating Ragnarok and an unexpected visitor at King Arthur’s court. If that appeals, please go download a copy.

I like a deep, solid book. The twisted literary architecture of Gormenghast. The brief, stunning beauty of The Great Gatsby. But sometimes I want something pacey and enjoyable, something that provides the sort of accessible action long associated with pulp fiction. And that’s what drew me into the second of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Fool Moon.

Urban Fantasy Chicago Style

Fool Moon is a product of a very modern genre – urban fantasy. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard for hire in modern Chicago, balancing his struggling finances with his noble instincts through work for the police force. When a series of brutal murders show every sign of being committed by werewolves, Dresden becomes part of the investigation. Soon there are monsters, gangsters and even the police on his tale, and all he has to save him is a gun, a magic amulet and his trusty posing coat.

OK, he doesn’t call it a posing coat, but we all know that’s what long coats are for. Sherlock doesn’t have his because it’s practical, he has it because it looks damn cool.

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but to me Butcher seems to do a good job of combining the elements of modern life and fantasy adventure. The workings of the police, criminals and local politics aren’t just background, they’re integral to the plot. The monsters and magic aren’t just added colour for a detective story, they’re also central. Together, these make a fascinating mix.

The Unchanging Adventurer

Fool Moon also dips into an older literary tradition – that of the pulp serials, escapist fiction in which action is prioritised over character progress.

I wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, uses many of those tricks. The illusion of progress is created by setting Harry Dresden back at the start of the story, so that when things come good at the end it seems like a step forward, even though he’s essentially where he was at the start of the last book. There’s a romance that similarly jumps through positive and negative hoops before ending up back where it was. There’s an ongoing villain in the form of gangster Johnny Marconi, as well as immediate menaces who appear and are dealt with within this one book.

Harry Dresden’s life doesn’t need to change for his adventures to be entertaining. Which is a good thing, because Dresden as a character seems as resistant to change as his world. Butcher has done a great job of creating a character whose looping life makes sense.

All the Clichés!

Lets be clear – none of the elements in this book are terribly original in and of themselves. From the noire-style succession of hot ladies in Harry’s life, to the gangster the law can’t touch, to the eventual solution hung in pride of place like Chekhov’s Gun at the start of the story.

To me, this isn’t a story with a deep message or something new to say. But it’s a lot of fun, and worth it for that.

Bonus points go to the audiobook of it I listened to, which had James Marsters doing the reading. He suits the story very well, and mercifully doesn’t have to revive his British accent from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Well, here’s an exciting surprise sitting in my YouTube list – Doc Brown has made a rap video based on Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London. A musician I admire rapping about a book I enjoyed? Sounds good to me. And Doc Brown seems a perfect choice to portray Aaronovitch’s supernatural cop Peter Grant. Lets give it a go.

 

Alright, I admit, I thought that was only OK. The best rap evokes powerful emotions, and that didn’t. The best story songs either evoke a strong sense of atmosphere or tell a condensed tale from beginning to end, and that sat uncomfortably somewhere in between, not really achieving either. Brown’s direct lyrical style is better suited to comedy than to this. Exhibit A, My Proper Tea:

 

But.

I am still very glad that this track exists. I love when artists in one medium respond to a work in another. I think it’s fantastic that we’re now hearing really good music on nerdy themes. And much as I love Steam Powered Giraffe or listening to Christopher Lee doing heavy metal history songs, I don’t want the music of the fantastical to all be created by white guys with guitars.*

Having said that, lets take a moment for one of those Christopher Lee tracks:

 

I would rather live in a world full of exciting and varied failures than one where everything succeeds in the same way. I would rather listen to something flawed but unusual like this than anything Kanye West or Oasis have ever produced. I’ll take the experiments that don’t quite work if it makes the world more interesting.

And hey, maybe if they do a sequel I’ll like it more.

So thanks for this Aaronovitch and Brown. Please keep at it.

 

* Confession time – the majority of my music collection probably consists of white guys with guitars. What can I say, I’m a white guy who grew up listening to guitar music. But I like to have variety too.

Misfits

Posted: October 30, 2013 in watching
Tags: , , , ,

I followed the advice in my last post, went on holiday and left the computer at home. Very relaxing. But now I’m back, and so is Misfits.

Woohoo Misfits!

I have no idea whether Misfits has travelled beyond Britain. I can see how it might not have done. Not everyone’s going to buy into the story of a group of British delinquents who acquire ill-explained super-powers and use them in the most misguided ways. But that niche approach is part of the appeal for me. It doesn’t show people using powers in the traditional framework of heroes and villains. It shows them doing what most people do with any talent – nothing of much note.

Ah Nathan, how I miss you

The other Britain

Equally admirable is the show’s engagement with a Britain not often seen on TV screens. This is the place where vast swathes of the population live, in run down old estates and jobs that are demeaning if they even exist. Looked down on for infractions that are petty or even normal within their social sphere, punished with marginalisation and in this case community service for being who they are, whether that’s good people or not.

The only comparable example I can think of is Top Boy, which like Misfits neither glamorises nor condemns lives of boredom and petty crime. Both shows, in very different ways, show people living on the edge of the society we normally talk about. What’s special about Misfits is that it addresses this not with seriousness, but with grim humour and a touch of the fantastic.

Fantasy everywhere

For me, what this really highlights is that you can write fantasy in any setting, but that modern fantasy, urban fantasy, can be quite narrow in its focus. It’s detectives and journalists, successful criminals and mysterious academics. The humans it mixes with the magic really represent a minority of the population. That’s a shame, and maybe part of why fantasy remains slightly marginalised as a genre.

Sure, Misfits goes too far at times. Almost anyone will find it offensive at some point. But for all that its fourth season struggled with cast changes and poor structure, it’s still one of the best bits of TV coming out of the UK right now. Fantasy can shine a fresh light on reality, and it shouldn’t limit the reality it explores. Misfits is refreshing, adventurous and willing to go too far. And isn’t that what superpowers are all about?

What do you think? Have you been watching Misfits, and what do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? What are your favourite scenes? If you haven’t seen it then what other super-powered shows, books or comics would you recommend? What does something interesting with powers? Let me know below.

I’ve been meaning to read Rivers of London for a while. I’m intrigued by the idea of hidden cities lurking beneath our own, both literally and metaphorically, and this looked like it would play on that theme. I’ve not read much urban fantasy, but this looked fun and a bit different, and I’m familiar enough with London for that to add to my interest. I don’t know how original this is by comparison with other fantasies in modern settings, but it worked for me.

Rivers of London follows policeman Peter Grant as he’s drawn into a world of supernatural danger and politicing. It’s rich and convincing in its detail, including that on police life and London’s history. I don’t know if it would stand up to an expert in those fields, but I’m no expert, and Aaronovitch convinced me he knew what he was doing. In fact, that was one of the biggest lessons I learned from this book as a writer – do more research. The throw-away details and the real-sounding depiction of the nuances of police life really sucked me in, even when dealing with the unreal.

Story-wise, this was pretty familiar. An apprentice drawn into an exotic life, growing out from beneath the wings of his master. A mysterious power to be thwarted. A crime with limited suspects. A hint of love triangle on the side. Nothing innovative, but nothing wrong with that. The parts combined well, it was easy to follow and cracked along at a good pace.

And strangely, I’m struggling for more to say. There was nothing that stood out as wrong with this book, and nothing that leapt out and made me go ‘holy cow, I must talk about that!’ It was good enough that I’ll probably read more Peter Grant books, and at the end of the day, isn’t that a success for a novel?

Overall, worth reading. I enjoyed it, I’ve learned a bit, now on to the next story.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?