Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mur Lafferty “The Shambling Guide to New York City” (Orbit, 2013)

By 2013, we’re at a place where the tropes of urban fantasy seem to be codified.  We’ve all read the bare bones version of the subgenre:  modeled after mainstream mysteries, we have a (usually female) protagonist who gets involved with some evil supernatural being.  Usually there’s a hot love interest that happens to be another supernatural entity.  Often the protagonist is gifted with some crazy supernatural powers as well.

Mur Lafferty is working well within the confines of urban fantasy, but attempting to tell a story that is a bit fresher.   The results are mixed.

(SPOILERS below)

Zoe, our protagonist, has recently relocated to NYC from North Carolina where a publishing job went horribly wrong.  She’s trying to get established in the city, and comes across a job listing for an editor for a series of travel guides.  She eventually gets the job, only to learn that the travel guides are targeting monsters (or the coterie, as they prefer).  The next portion of the novel is expository, as Zoe learns about the various types of coterie and how they live in New York.  Unfortunately she becomes aware of a plot destabilize the delicate balance between the supernatural and humans in the city, culminating in an attack on the city by her former boss’ wife.

The tone throughout The Shambling Guide is wonderful.  Lafferty has a light touch, and humor and deep affection for the characters comes through.  The first two thirds of the book are wonderful.  The reader learns about the world along with Zoe.  The exposition feels natural and integrated into the flow of the character’s growth.  Zoe is a rather charming young woman, eager to please and hardworking.  Her goals are simple:  a good job and ultimately a nice life in the city she’s always loved.

Unfortunately, thinking about the plot too much causes all those good feelings to crash and burn.  Zoe has a built in forced exceptionalism required to make the plot work.  Why does she get the job at the publishing house?  She’s the only human in the workplace.  Her boss initially doesn’t want to hire her, but decides to do so anyway.  Why?  She’s targeted by the woman who’s a threat to the city.  Really?  Isn’t that taking revenge for a cheating husband a bit too far?  And of course ultimately we find out that Zoe possesses a super rare ability to speak to the soul of the city (whatever that is – it’s an idea that’s never really developed or explained).

Reading this book was odd.  It was very funny and entertaining while I was in the midst of it.  Only after I finished and started thinking about the book did I have more and more issues with the narrative.  What initially seemed to be a fun break from the normal genre tropes got ensnared by some of the more annoying ones.

Steve Niles and Fiona Staples, “Mystery Society” (IDW, 2013)

Nick Hammond and Anastasia Collins are rich adventurers devoted to getting answers to the mysterious questions that plague the world.  They investigate conspiracies, cover-ups, and strange occurrences while exchanging witty banter and looking fantastic.  In a sense it’s a mashup of The Thin Man, Buckaroo Banzai, & the X-Files and assorted 90s conspiracy stories.

While self-contained, the story alludes to numerous past adventures (some of which seem to have led to a certain amount of notoriety.  Unfortunately I had the sense that the earlier adventures were significantly more compelling that the story that we are actually told.  It’s not that the plot is bad… it’s just not that compelling.  The light tone of the dialogue cuts against the tension that Niles needs for the plot to actually feel dangerous.  If the light tone is intended, then perhaps a clever story would have been a better option.

The artwork by Fiona Staples is the draw here.  Personally I became a fan of her art on the Saga series, & was happy to get an opportunity to see some earlier work.  She brings the same clean lines that I expected after reading Saga.  While Saga’s aesthetic allows her to be wildly inventive, the Earth-based setting of Mystery Society forces her to experiment in a different fashion.  Here she goes more for a retro-futurist approach (think The Avengers, The Prisoner, etc).  While her work here isn’t as stunning as her current work, it’s very effective for this type of story.

Overall, Mystery Story was a fun read.  It’s not a game changer, or something I feel compelled to give to friends, but is a solid read.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

“Carniepunk” (Gallery Books, 2013)

When I think about it, I’m surprised that Circuses and Carnivals are used as settings more often in fantasy.  It’s one real world place that gives us the same thrills that we get from reading.  The acts really do amaze and delight.  Through a combination of training and showmanship performers do things that your logical mind says can’t be done.  But when the lights go up, there’s a seedy underbelly to the whole experience.  Of course the old fashioned freak shows offered up images that I’ve not forgotten decades later.  It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Carniepunk takes the logical step and offers up a collection of urban fantasy stories set in Carnivals.  They’ve assembled a top level collection of talent.  The contributing writers are some of the biggest names in the field.  Contributing authors include Rachel Caine, Jennifer Estep, Seanan McGuire, Kevin Hearne, Rob Thurman, and many more.  Most of these writers are using characters from best-selling series.  These are the sort of stories that one day may end up in character specific collections, tying up odds & sods of material ancillary to the main books of the series.

Now I have not read most of the authors in this collection.  While I’m sure that probably missed some nuances that regular series readers would have picked up, I found the stories perfectly enjoyable without any back story presented.  

That being said, my favorite stories were the ones that weren’t involving characters from a long running series.  Seanan McGuire’s contribution in particular was wonderful.  Not only does it subvert the dominant “carnies are evil” trope that is used in the book, but it becomes a wonderful character study of a person trapped by their nonhuman heritage.

On the whole I found Carniepunk to be a very entertaining read.  While relating thematically, the stories show enough variety to make for an intriguing collection.  I enjoyed the opportunity to try out a few urban fantasy writers I was unfamiliar with, and in all probability will read more of in the future.  While there are no real surprises here, sometimes doing what it says on the tin is success on its own.

David Wong “John Dies at the End” (Permuted Press, 2007)

Maybe you’ve been in this situation:  You’re at a party, or a bar, and you find yourself talking to some guy sitting or standing next to you.  It’s late, and everyone is a bit altered, but this guy seems to be beyond the norm.  His eyes are wide and he’s a bit manic.  He’s telling some story and you can’t remember how it started.  But it just seems to go on and on getting more improbable the longer he talks.  The story barely makes any sense, and you don’t believe a word of it.  But clearly he does.  He’s emphatic that no, this stuff happened to him and his friend.  No, his friend’s not here, but if he were, he would back up this story 100%.  So this story keeps going on and on, and you find yourself thinking “how did I get in this situation” and eventually “oh God, will this story ever stop?”  Yeah, sure, the story is funny at times, but you don’t know this guy, or anyone else in the story, and you really don’t care.  Especially since it all seems so crazy and so implausible.

That’s how I felt reading John Dies at the End.  It’s funny and crazy, but goes on way too long.

If this book is judged by most conventional measures, it is an abject failure.  The plot is meandering, with multiple starts and stops and detours along the way.  Plot elements appear or disappear as needed in order for a particular situation to be resolved.  The characterization is minimal at best.  Slacker dudes, evil possessed minions, etc… While some comment “hey I know those guys”, these feelings are based more on reader projection than any real development in the book itself.  Moreover, there’s no character growth presented.  Our slacker heroes are the same basic guys throughout.  Only the stakes at any given point change, not the characters themselves.

All that being said, there is some entertainment to be found here.  Wong’s voice is very familiar to internet savvy readers.  Its snarky and simple and often quite engaging.  There are some laughs and thrills to be found.  Just don’t expect the laughs to be sophisticated or the thrills to be remotely plausible.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Lee Martinez "Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest" (Orbit, 2013)

Helen is a normal teenage girl.  She’s smart.  She’s funny.  She’s got some mild body image issues.  And she’s a Minotaur (or Enchanted American, in the parlance of their times).  Troy’s your average overachieving, handsome, athletic, likeable Asian American guy.  

When their boss at their after school job tries to sacrifice Helen, Helen & Troy are thrust together on a quest by the Lost God.  They are aided by the shadowy agents of the Questing Bureau, as well as an assortment of oddball characters they meet along the way.

The plot thickens when the Wild Hunt motorcycle gang is compelled to stop them.  Don’t hold the fact that they are Orcs against them.  Most of the bikers are office workers during the week, and only get out riding on the weekends.  Nevertheless, they have their heritage to live up to, and will stop at almost nothing to stop Helen & Troy’s success.

Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest is an absolute joy.  Martinez manages to balance character and plot exceedingly well, while keeping his tongue firmly planted in cheek.  You want action and adventure?  You’ve got it!  You want emotional growth or a will they or won’t they romance?  You’ve got it!  You want laughs and winking references to a myriad of genre & related items?  Well they’re thrown in as well!