urban fantasy

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.14.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The Lies of Locke Lamora features long cons, crime-boss uprisings, and bloody revenge plots amid the cluttered criminal underworld of a bustling, sweltering, alchemy-infused alternative medieval Venice. Our heroes: the Gentleman Bastards, a tiny brotherhood of con artists, led by the unparalleled liar Locke Lamora.

One of my good reading buddies went crazy for this novel shortly after it came out, and I had always wanted to read it since, especially because the title was so mischievous, lyrical, and evocative. The fact that it continually resurfaces as a fan favorite 10 years on also piqued my interest. (e.g., it’s still on the bestseller list at my local sff bookstore, Pandemonium.)

Based on the hoopla, I’d been expecting something Dorothy Sayers-esque – exceptionally witty and elegant – but unfortunately found this, prose-wise, to be a solid B+ at best. Lynch’s writing is markedly juvenile: he overuses italics and parentheticals, and treats profanity in large quantities as funny per se. Characters emote by gritting their teeth, gulping, and squeaking. I would describe the humor as geekily goofy, rather than witty. His descriptions are colorful and involving, but not sharply observed. He does a good job of conveying personality more through dialogue than exposition, but again, isn’t quite sharp enough to fully resolve characters purely through these means. I wouldn’t say the characters feel hollow, as they often do in mediocre fantasy – symbols of people rather than people – but there’s a general feeling of a slightly unfocused photograph about the whole thing. The villains in particular are dreadfully boilerplate.

That said, I stuck it out, and had a lot of fun with it. This book has vim – it has bounce and fun and grit and texture – qualities that are helped along by Lynch’s obvious enjoyment at sharing his created city, and a greater part of lightheartedness than grimness. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.11.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Original Sins collects issues 1-9 of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, with art by John Ridgway & Alfredo Alcala.

There’s a certain disadvantage to targeted reading of comics (or whatever) that are considered to be gamechangers. This is, obviously, that you don’t actually appreciate what the game is that they’re coming along and changing. I theoretically know plenty, for example, about what the 1980’s British Invasion of Comics achieved, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the associated works. But since I don’t actually want to go sloshing around in the surrounding milieu of stagnating American comics, I just have to take people’s word for it that they were stagnating – which means that it’s hard to completely understand what the Brit Pack reacted against so successfully. Ah well.

Hellblazer vol. 1 cover

It’s a rotten, fallen world that magician John Constantine lives in, ushered along by his ripely tortured narration (“My mouth is rank – sweat bathes me, like the cold, nicotine condensation on the carriage window”), and sometimes simply by panel after panel depicting British urban misery in Ridgway and Alcala’s scratchy inks. Delano takes shots at just about everything awful in Britain (and sometimes the US) in the ’80’s, sometimes satirically (demon yuppies!) and sometimes just angrily: Maggie Thatcher, economic decay, televangelism, football hooliganism, and hatred and bigotry and greed of all stripes. I’ve seen the John Constantine character dismissed as dated, but it’s depressing how close to home much of Original Sins still feels in 2012, particularly on the economic front.

It’s the anger that really gets to you in this series, anger directed both outward and in. Constantine often lashes out against the forces of suppurating evil, but even more often seems to do harm to humanity himself through some combination of deliberate, self-interested inaction and plain cockiness. Apparently it’s a running “joke” in the series that Constantine gets all of his friends killed; he’s already off to an impressive start in Original Sins, with various allies falling dead throughout the volume at the hands of all manner of hellspawn and religious zealots. His raffishness and devil-may-care pragmatism too often translate into willingness to pass easy judgments on others’ weaknesses, and on what needs to be done to expedite his idea of the greater good, with the result that guilt becomes another dominating flavor of the series.

The story that I found the most viscerally disturbing in the volume, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” features Constantine as passive witness to the destruction of an Iowan town by their own Vietnam War ghosts. He insists that he’s cut off from the conflict, helpless to intervene. But given his shoddy track record on intervention throughout the volume, I wasn’t so convinced that this wasn’t just his well-developed sense of self-preservation talking.

I was certainly impressed with the heated, fetid atmosphere that Delano brews up – so different from the limp, humorless chilliness of the Constantine movie, whose main and only attraction for me was the Keanu-Reeves-as-Constantine/Tilda-Swinton-as-Gabriel homoerotic tension. Unfortunately, my aggregated puzzlement at the dense referencing of previously encountered characters and situations increasingly convinced me that I really had to backpedal at least a couple years and start in with Swamp Thing, where John Constantine first appears, before diving back into Hellblazer.

I also note that I started this review a year ago, and, coming back to finish it now, find that my memories of the comic are surprisingly dim. I’m guessing that this is in large part because I felt more impressed by its effect, than actually affected.

Go to:
Jamie Delano: bio and works reviewed
Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.8.2013
Book from: Personal collection

“My name’s Quinn. If you buy into my reputation, I’m the most notorious demon hunter in New England. But rumors of my badassery have been slightly exaggerated. Instead of having kung-fu skills and a closet full of medieval weapons, I’m an ex-junkie with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or…whatever.

Wanted for crimes against inhumanity I (mostly) didn’t commit, I was nearly a midnight snack for a werewolf until I was ‘saved’ by a vampire calling itself the Bride of Quiet. Already cursed by a werewolf bite, the vamp took a pint out of me too. So now… now, well, you wouldn’t think it could get worse, but you’d be dead wrong.”

The recently released Blood Oranges looks to be kicking up some dust in the vicinity of urban/paranormal fantasy, which is as it should be: Caitlín Kiernan, writing under the pseudonym of Kathleen Tierney, aimed it as a rejoinder to many of the more questionable indulgences of the genre, whether they be tramp-stamped, pleather-clad heroines or beglittered vampires. It’s also a fast-paced, profane, and combustive little thriller with an unapologetically queer, thoroughly ornery protagonist who’s suffered the tragicomical fate of being transformed into the world’s only werepire. (At least her heroin addiction is gone.)

Since I lack a generalized sense of vindictiveness towards urban-whatever fantasy, I don’t find particular satisfaction in trope-busting per se, and some of Quinn’s acid meta-commentaries – about how if she had been a character in that kind of book, this would have happened that way, but she’s not, so it didn’t – do go on a bit. What does interest me about the device is how it helps inform Quinn as a character. As fun as pyrotechnics and various deaths-by-werewolf can be, I found it far more rousing to watch the way that, tedious particulars aside, Quinn constructs and references narratives, then unceremoniously shreds them in her wake. Junkies lie, she tells us very early on. And so, after she’s rattled off a grimly spectacular rendition of her origins as a monster-slayer, it soon comes out that in fact she’s “been stretching the truth like it was a big handful of raspberry-flavored saltwater taffy.” The real origin story involves significantly more clumsiness and bad timing on the part of the defunct monsters.

While Quinn never repeats that gambit to quite that degree in the rest of the novel, digressions and evasions continue to criss-cross and loop around her narration – pop-cultural riffs and potshots, reminiscences that slide back and forth across time and various shadings of the truth. Combined with the raw prose (Quinn warns us that she’s no writer), what comes across is the voice of a young woman who’s talking too fast, sometimes too loudly or too softly, compulsively running her hands through her hair, and not much meeting your eyes – someone rough, vibrant, and, despite the efforts of numerous supernatural beings, very much alive.

Quinn doesn’t have enough agency to be a really free-wheeling trickster character (like many of Kiernan’s characters, she’s trapped in a relationship with a dubiously benevolent protector/mentor/creator), but in her exuberant roughness, her scrappiness, her avowed suspicion of anything resembling a moral code, there’s a definite, electric touch of the trickster spirit. Temper that with the sense of submerged loss that’s another constant in Kiernan’s work, and you have a protagonist whose wry, sometimes melancholy self-awareness convincingly undergirds the satire.

Go to:
Caitlin R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2011.10.16
Book from: Personal collection

Cassel Sharpe is the only non-magical member of a family of curse workers, in a world where magic is illegal and hence “worker” families constitute the magical equivalent of the mafia. Despite his disappointing failure to inherit curse-working powers, Cassel somehow managed to murder his childhood friend and love, Lila – though why he can’t remember. Add in life-threatening bouts of nightmares and sleepwalking, a dysfunctional crime family, and the beginnings of an elaborate conspiracy, and Cassel’s attempts at passing himself off as a normal kid seem like they might be over for good.

I read White Cat in one sitting after accidentally meeting Holly Black at a book festival and picking up a copy from her. This is addictive stuff: magical con artists and Russian mobsters; family melodrama; a hard-driving, twisty-turny plot; a mouthy, self-deprecating protagonist with likably grounded sidekicks. I must give a particular hurrah for there being a male Asian-American character: Sam Yu, Cassel’s roommate, a theater geek whose vehicle of choice is a converted hearse.

Black’s prose is a lot sharper and cleaner than I remember it being in her Modern Faerie trilogy, which I sorta-loved for its heroines, but mostly remember as a swill of angst. Cassel angsts plenty, too (I admit to skimming some of the whinier passages), but there are moments – particularly the ending – where his emotional experience deepens into real, wrenching anguish. That, and plenty of sharp detail – the world-building, Cassel’s slickly laid out cons, characters who convince you of their reality – kept me invested. I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here. Let this stand as a reminder to myself to pick up Red Glove whenever I find the chance.

Go to:
Holly Black: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 9.2.11
Book from: Borrowed from my cousin
Reviewer: Emera

“The name’s Bond. Shaman Bond. Actually, that’s just my cover. I’m Eddie Drood. But when your job includes a license to kick supernatural arse on a regular basis, you find your laughs where you can. For centuries, my family has been the secret guardian of humanity, all that stands between all of you and all of the really nasty things that go bump in the night. As a Drood field agent I wore the golden torc, I killed monsters, and I protected the world. I loved my job. Right up to the point when my own family declared me rogue for no reason, and I was forced to go on the run. Now the only people who can help me prove my innocence are the people I used to consider my enemies.

I’m Shaman Bond, very secret agent. And I’m going to prove to everyone that no one does it better than me.”

More junk food, sorry. Harry Dresden in London, basically, only not half as zippy or funny (and I’m pretty easily amused when it comes to dork humor). Most of Green’s one-liners sink without a trace, and the book feels brutally repetitive only a few chapters in. The main character solves most conflicts by punching buildings or people (while wearing his magical golden armor of invulnerability and superstrength) or activating one of an array of ridiculously overpowered gadgets. (Look, we get that James Bond had absurd gadgetry, but his gadgetry stayed fun and quirky because it was generally small in size and effect, and single-use-only. Exploding pen =/= watch that can be repeatedly used to turn back time.)

Green thrusts settings and concepts and characters under our noses and then yanks them back again so fast that we hardly have the time to get a sense of  their flavor. I enjoy the Dresden Files in large part because I love and want to explore the Dresdenverse; there’s no Droodverse, just a series of sets being frantically swapped out. And to add to the list of things that get old, fast: Drood’s backup/love interest, the wild witch Molly Metcalf, seems to be capable of expressing disappointment only by pouting, and delight by clapping her hands and squealing. Really?

Still, I enjoyed the introductions to a few lesser-known bits of British-Isles folklore – a throwaway reference had me looking up Joan the Wad, Cornish pixie queen, for example – and a few of Green’s own creations, like Girl Flower, a Welsh elemental made of “rose petals and owls’ claws,” and the Blue Fairy, a dissolute half-elf with the ability to go fishing in other dimensions. And a few moments of the climax felt actually impressive, rather than just loud and boom-y, so I closed the book feeling halfway entertained.

Go to:
Simon R. Green: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: (incomplete) 10.17.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Adapted from the back cover:

“Set in contemporary Moscow, where shapeshifters, vampires, and streets-sorcerers linger in the shadows, Night Watch is the first book in an epic saga chronicling the eternal war of the ‘Others,’ an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who must swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. The agents of Light – the Night Watch – oversee nocturnal activity, while the agents of Dark keep watch over the day. For a thousand years both sides have maintained a precarious balance of power, but an ancient prophecy has decreed that a supreme Other will one day emerge, threatening to tip the scales. Now, that day has arrived. When a mid-level Night Watch agent named Anton stumbles upon a cursed young woman – an uninitiated Other with magnificent potential – both sides prepare for a battle that could lay waste to the entire city, possibly the world.”

I grabbed this off of Kakaner’s shelf at some point, having heard that the movie adaptations of the series were good, and being a bit of a sucker for urban-fantasy romps (as evidenced by my shameless obsession with the Dresden Files). I sampled two chapters before deciding to give the rest a miss. What I read seemed a bit silly and mostly predictable; I didn’t feel particularly intrigued by the characters or the world-building, especially given the obvious moral binary. Andrew Bromfield’s translation reads fluently, so I’m going to assume that any faults lie with the original text: namely, abuse of ellipses and exclamation points (“This was real power! With real perseverance!” “Damn!” “Faster!” “A female voice!”) and a general atmosphere of cheesy, humorless melodrama. Characters growl in anger, angst about unquenchable blood thirst, and so on.

Also, not the fault of the book itself, but still hilarious – a further excerpt from the back-cover summary: “With language that throbs like darkly humorous hard-rock lyrics about blood and power, freedom and responsibility…” – That is some quite specific throbbing.

Go to:
Sergei Lukyanenko: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 7.17.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

What is Un Lun Dun? It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up… and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion; and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.

Un Lun Dun is basically Neil Gaiman‘s Neverwhere meets The Phantom Tollbooth, and owes debts – some playfully acknowledged in the text itself – to many other classics of children’s and fantasy literature, including A Wrinkle in Time and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a cleverly crafted and delightful book: Miéville lets loose yet again with his famously phantasmagorical imagination, filling out his alternate London with topsy-turvy architecture (houses constructed of obsolete technology, a ghost town whose buildings constantly flicker through various historical incarnations, a web-cocooned “Webminster Abbey”), a lovingly detailed bestiary, and a vast arsenal of puns (some of my favorites: UnLondon’s sister cities include Parisn’t and Lost Angeles).  All of these are complemented by Miéville’s appropriately inky, energetic illustrations. For fans of his adult fiction, there are also plenty of touches of eerie, deeply unsettling dark fantasy, some of which could have come straight out the New Crobuzon books – I couldn’t help feeling that the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey might be lesser cousins of Bas-Lag’s Weavers. With his usual anti-authoritarianism, Miéville also takes a good amount of pleasure in dismantling and inverting the tropes of the fantasy quest, so that we get a very unintended heroine who quite literally refuses to go by the rules of the (talking) book.

For all its delights, though, Un Lun Dun somehow failed to really surprise and engage me. It felt a bit like a themepark ride: there’s plenty to see, but it all goes by rather quickly, and you’re not sure how much it really meant to you at the end of it all. The characters are all likable enough, including the quick-thinking, occasionally snarky heroine, but few are really memorable enough to be lovable, and I had about the same feeling about the book as a whole. Its pleasures lie more in its ingenuity and dazzling wordplay than in any real emotional connection. I also had a little difficulty with the writing style, which is heavy on short, bluntly declarative sentences. And though I appreciated the plot’s pro-environmental, pro-literacy bent, the messages were shoehorned in a little awkwardly and obviously.

So, like Kakaner, I’m going to have to make a conditional recommendation for this one: try it out if you’re a big Miéville fan, are looking for pure entertainment, or have a younger reader of strong constitution to share it with. I would have loved this so much more had I read it when I was about twelve – too much younger and I think certain scenes might have kept me from sleeping at night, though I would have read them with relish anyway.

Go to:
China Miéville
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville (2007) K

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Date Read: 3.31.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Deeba and Zanna begin to experience strange phenomena until suddenly, one day, they find themselves in the alternate universe of Unlondon. Here they find that Unlondon has been waiting for a long time for Zanna, the “Shwazzy,” to fight the evil Smog, an evil cloud of pollution. However, things are not what they seem when events contradict the prophecies and Deeba is forced to fight the Smog on her own.

Review

I MISS BEING 12.

I have a feeling that if I read this while in middle school, I would have deemed Un Lun Dun The Best Book Evar. The book is incredibly reminiscent of Phantom Tollbooth, chock full of strange realizations of imagination, each a quirky interpretation of something we find in our reality. There’s not much to say plot-wise… the bulk of content was simply the adventure and development of Unlondon and numerous characters, a delightful afternoon romp for the appreciative reader.

As I organized my thoughts for this review, I remembered the China Miéville event I attended at which I saw him speak about Un Lun Dun and the entire YA genre with vivid boyish excitement, and the memory is coloring my opinions of Un Lun Dun with much fondness. I crushed hard on the fact that so much of the humor and wit in Un Lun Dun was derived from references and puns concerning books. Some pun examples, though not necessarily book-related, are the Black Window, Unbrellas, and Bookaneers! But most of the circumstantial humor was centered around books, and made me suspect that Un Lun Dun was really a huge elaborate scheme to write a book to promote the message: “BOOKS ARE TEH SH*T!” and it made me extremely happy.

Unfortunately, I actually don’t consider Un Lun Dun a must-read. But if you’re a die hard Miéville fan, definitely check it out. The main character is very likeable, and it is an insanely easy read with maximum 4-page chapters. To top it all off, you get to see Miéville‘s very own original illustrations. There’s nothing better (or sometimes worse) than observing an author treading new ground, and Mieville does so quite expertly. There is indeed a deep understanding of the YA psyche and which elements excite the imagination.

Go to:
China Miéville
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville (2007) E

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Date read: 8.3.09
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

I picked this and #15 up at a used book sale, partly out of a fit of pique that I couldn’t find anything else to my taste – even though I didn’t know anything about the actual quality of the anthology series. Luckily, every story in this was well written and solidly above average, which is more than can be said for most of the anthologies I’ve read in my life.

To begin with the best, my absolute favorites, in no particular order:

  • Kelly Link’s feverish, extremely unnerving “Stone Animals” (come on, even the title is creepy). Young couple with poor communication and two small children, including a sleepwalking daughter, moves into a new house where all is not quite well – classic set-up for horror, and Link plays it gleefully. I imagined her whooping maniacally while writing the story, truth be told.
  • Lisa Tuttle’s “My Death,” the story of a recently widowed writer who travels in search of new inspiration, and becomes strangely entangled in the legacy of an early 20th-century painter and his muse. This builds slowly, but goes places that are increasingly strange and tap into very primitive, raw forces. The ending was completely unpredictable and bewildering in the best way possible. Masterfully executed, all in all.
  • Michael Marshall Smith’s supremely atmospheric and ever-so-delicately frightening “This Is Now.” Describing it would ruin it, so I won’t. This gave me the most chills-down-the-spine read, yet the fear is so deliciously subtle and evanescent.

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Date read: 10.10.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

The day after stumbling drunk into his father’s flat, Saul Garamond wakes to find that he is the chief suspect in his father’s killing – which occurred as he slept one room over. Sprung from jail by a raggedly pompous, sinuously sinister figure who calls himself King Rat and claims that Saul’s mother was herself a rat, Saul uncovers the truth of his father’s death, and of his strange heritage in the sewers of London.

So this was an “eh” sort of read. Very Miéville (twisty, dark, and Urban with a capitual u, and an umlaut for good measure), and  good for a first novel, but still obviously a first novel – it’s clear why he didn’t make it big until Perdido Street Station. I found the book intriguing, but not compelling: I was convinced of its mythology and milieu, but not terribly interested, and it simply didn’t have the heft and engrossing sense of reality that the Bas-Lag books do. Add in a general sketchiness as far as character development goes, and the result was that that I imagined Miéville sitting down one day and telling himself that he wanted to write a novel about the Pied Piper legend…. WITH DRUM ‘N’ BASS. And of course a good helping of Socialism. So: too many pet elements without enough connective tissue for them to hang together comfortably. I did like the ambiguity of the King Rat character, though, and found him a memorable figure.

For the record, those interested in other Pied Piper retellings might try looking up Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the first story, “Paid Piper,” in Tanith Lee’s collection Red as Blood. The former is very polished and amusing, and the latter is very weird. There’s also a not-so-great one with a silly twist ending in Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red (from their retold fairy tale anthology series), whose not-so-greatness is manifest in the fact that I can’t remember the author, although the title was something along the lines of “A Sound, As of Angels.” Hmm.

Go to:

China Miéville
Looking for Jake (2005) K
The City & The City (2009) K

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