Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy

The Dark Side of the Road

the-dark-side-of-the-roadThe Dark Side of the Road is the first novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series.  Simon R. Green is a well-known author hailing from England.  He is known for writing a number of series including the Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, Nightside, and Ghost Finders series.  The Dark Side of the Road was first published in 2015.

I own the Deathstalker series novels and I have read three Nightside novels. I generally find Green’s writing to be a wee bit darker and a little less enjoyable than comparable authors. I recall that some readers recommended the Nightside series to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.  Something that I think is somewhat similar betwixt the two series is the lead characters in both are somewhat snarky, rather jaded, loners who seem to be the only experts in a field of interest comprised of one member.

To be honest, these types of characters are nearly archetypal categories in certain genres.  They are necessary elements in a specific novel. This feels both comfortable and also saddening.  I do not mind admitting that sometimes you want to read a novel that contains character-forms that are already familiar. Fantasy novels (particularly traditional epic fantasy novels) are rife with examples.  Let me give an example; the group of archetypal characters has a quest.  The group always consists of:  the comedy, the wizard, the brute, the knight, and the Everyman.  Some readers treat this negatively.  I admit that I sometimes find it horribly unoriginal and tiring, too.  However, on occasion it is just easily comfortable to know who the characters are before you open the cover.

So, when I say that Ishmael Jones is one of those characters who is a loner, drinks moodily at the pub, answers questions with questions/without giving any data, and prides himself on being without roots or hindrances – you know exactly the character I mean. Immediately the reader has to confront the name of the character. The first line of the novel is: “Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones.”

At this point, it can go one of two ways… A.) The reader can guffaw and snort with the author at the painfully obvious reference AND think this is a neat name for a character; B.) The reader can be disgusted by the over-the-top obnoxiousness of this line and name. Honestly, I was in the second group. I like sarcasm and and satire, but this is just too much.

Anyway, this story takes place at Christmastime in rural Cornwall.  Green sets the whole story (which is a total of three days) in the middle of a horrendous blizzard.  I read this book at the start of January and I recommend readers keep this one for December and January as well. It helps reading the thing if it is also wintertime.  This is no beach read and reading it at Myrtle or Clearwater will ruin the effect because the blizzard is providing the “locked-room” constraint to the novel.

Jones is invited to spend Christmas at a country manor house with the Colonel and the Colonel’s family.  Jones has known the Colonel for fifteen years, but their relationship has been solely work-focused. They work, of course, in a secret, underground, shadowy world. The Colonel’s invite to come to Cornwall, therefore leaves Jones agitated and worried. Jones is not the sort of person you invite anywhere unless there is serious business to be handled.

Throughout the first chunk of the novel, Green repetitively drops “hints” (if by hint we mean sledgehammer) about how Jones is abnormal. He is special. He is a little more skilled, robust, knowledgeable than he should be. He is well-trained and heavily experienced – at whatever shadowy and mysterious tasks he does.

And for the first half of the novel, the storyline is slow. After all the whole novel is only spanning three days of time. So, the first half spends a lot of time setting the scene and meeting the characters. Naturally, Jones is an aloof house guest who provides a sketch of each of the other members at the party.  Some of this is very info-dumpish and heavy-handed. Its not good writing – there is no nuance whatsoever. But it is vaguely interesting. Because the story feels a lot less like Nightside and a lot more like a mystery novel.

And go ahead and admit it with me….. a blizzard at Christmas in a rural Cornwall manor house with a mystery afoot…. is definitely something you want to read even if the writing is hack and weak.

The second half of the novel is where the action takes place. And events transpire quickly, once they get going. The novel is very much like Clue – but with some supernatural elements. And I need to share here that the events do get very gory at times. So, it is not a light and bright read.  There is some gore that will bother the best imaginations that read this story.

The ending opens the knowledge that this will be a series. But as a standalone, this is okay – it is a completed, closed unit in itself. Will I read the second? Oh sure, but not because it is  great novel. I will read on because it is such easy reading to find out what happens next to a character who, in his own way, is quite unique – even if a lot of tropes cover his landscape. The secret organization is actually the real hook Green got me with….

In some ways, this is a genre-mixing of a couple ideas. Tropes and archetypes abound. It is not nuanced or complex. But it is interesting, fast-reading, and entertaining.

3 stars

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The Rook

the-rookThe first novel that I finished in 2017 is The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It was originally published in 2012, but I still see it on group reads lists and in general circulation among readers. I watched one of the “trailers” (not sure how I feel about books having these) and it neither intrigued me, nor discouraged me. This not a perfect novel, but these days, there are so few truly good books that it should not be surprising. It was, however, one of the better novels that I have read in months. This is not deeply intellectual literary fiction, but it is quite a bit of fun and entertainment.

The thing about this book that most struck me was that the author is male (raised in Australia, educated in the USA) and this is his first published novel. However he writes a very convincing and likeable female main character. I think this would be difficult to do – to write a main character of the opposite gender – and do it without it seeming patronizing or stilted. I would have assumed the author was female if I had not known otherwise prior to reading the book.

Myfanwy Thomas is the name of the main character and much has been made of her first name. It has been said that this name is Welsh and is pronounced similar to “Tiffany.” I’ll be honest, with names in novels, I have never actually read them. I read them once or twice and then the whole name just becomes a block item – pattern recognition. That shape is the main character.

So, a secret government organization called The Checquy exists.  They deal with (all aspects) of the supernatural/unnatural all in the service of The Kingdom.  They are run by The Court, which consists of their senior leadership members – who are ranked in accordance with the standard pieces of chess. Why? No real reason other than “it is cool” – because chess is cool. The main character, Myfanwy Thomas, is a Rook. Since I know you know your chess, you know that the Rook is the “lowest” ranked non-pawn piece. (Let’s not expand into the supposed values of the chess pieces.)  In this story, she’s having a rather rough time of it.

Another item that really impressed me about the author’s efforts here, is how he manages info dumps. First of all, he created an exceedingly likeable main character. The Myfanwy character is convincing, intelligent, and has a completed personality. Also, she is definitely one of the wittiest characters I have read in a long time. And by “witty,” understand that I do not mean snarky or cutting. I mean actually witty. Part of developing this character so well was giving her a unique and powerful voice.  I think this, too, is a challenge for many writers. Making sure that the character has her own voice and is recognizable and realistic makes it infinitely better when we have heaps of information that the main character is going to spew at us.

“I just received information that the Americans are coming.”

“All of them?” asked Myfanwy. (pg. 167)

The format is the second aspect that helps the author manage info dumps.  He has his main character write “letters” that delineate the backstory and background information. Because she has such a strong voice, these letters come across a lot better than if they were droll, tedious letters being written from Locke to Leibniz (sorry, fellas). Now, the letters are printed in Italics – which did vex some readers – but I am from the generation where we read and write beautifully in cursive, so I did not mind that at all. But this formatting helps  bridge the gap between past and current in the storyline and allows us to follow along with the main character in almost a book-within-a-book method. Very nice and not so easy to pull off in your first novel, I would think.

Ultimately, this is urban fantasy.  It has supernatural/unnatural elements in it. However, it definitely takes place in the real world, more or less as we know it. The fantastical elements are treated as if normal to this world, but hidden from us – especially because of activities of The Checquy.  However, this novel is not really about vampires and werewolves and their melodrama. It is, more or less, a mystery novel.  In fact, this is such a mystery novel that the fact that there are supernatural  goings on really does not matter as much as the mystery at hand that the main character is thrust into right at the start.

It would be enough to write a successful contemporary urban fantasy novel for one’s first published work.  To also make that novel a very interesting and engaging mystery novel does deserve a chapeau. And so, in the midst of a plotline focused on the main character and her suddenly acquired career in The Checquy, we are also following clues in a mystery case.  The mystery, by the way, is who/what is trying to kill Myfanwy Thomas?  There are a lot of possible suspects, motives, and red herrings.  The author does a superior job keeping the reader in the loop with the many options for suspects.  I did not guess the guilty…. though… I never do….

In fact, right until the end I was in suspense as to who was a good guy and who was a bad guy.  All of the characters, and there are a bunch, are distinct and interesting. I mean that, I do not mean that they are filler characters made out of cardboard. The author did a lot of work to make the supporting characters developed. Most of these characters would have successful spin-off series novels without any trouble.

Generally, the book is very enjoyable and has a lot of good things going for it. I do think it is a tad bit too lengthy, I would like to see this around 400 pages – excising about 80 pages. However, it is still a solid read and I would recommend it to everyone. Especially because this is a novel without ridiculous sex scenes, absurd romances, and blathering agendas.  There are some scenes with some seriously well-written descriptive violence – but its, as they say, “fantasy violence.”

Finally, I think one of the things that most appealed to me about this book was the concept of tossing the main character into a world in which they are clueless and overwhelmed, but yet expected to perform successfully with aplomb. This was very engaging and gave the storyline a bit of dramatic tension not solely built on the mystery or the supernatural stuff.

4 stars

Rosemary and Rue

Rosemary and RueRosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire is the first novel in the October Daye urban fantasy series.  It was first released in 2009, I read the DAW paperback edition with cover art by Chris McGrath.  April is a busy month for a lot of reasons and I have been running into articles, blogs, and media highlighting the author, so I figured this was a good novel to read in between denser, meatier books.

The main character is October Daye.  She is considered a changeling, which is the term used for the offspring of pureblood Fae and human parents. One of the things that is attractive about this novel (and, presumably, the series it begins) is that it is about Fae/Fairies/Faerie.  I am under the impression that urban fantasy novels are heavily focused on creatures such as:  werewolves, zombies, and vampires.  So, reading a novel in this subgenre that does not involve the usual suspects seemed a bit more interesting.  To her credit, the author does build up a world of Fae in which it does seem to matter that these are Fae and not some other mythical being.

The fact is:  with urban fantasy there is a very obvious paradigm that gets followed.  The inhuman world is structured nearby or parallel to the human world.  There is magic, which generally we learn about practically, but never theoretically. By this I mean, the reader learns that magic operates because the characters use it.  However, the novels never really seem to take this activity beyond that superficial level. Characters are magic users or they are not.  As a comparison, so-called Epic Fantasy novels tend to flesh out their magic concepts a bit more. By not developing the concept at all, it tends to make all the urban fantasy novels seem similar, making magic just a stock element of all stories.  Further, the majority of inhuman societies are always feudal or medieval or courtly.  I do not know if this is some holdover from authors/readers attending too many Renaissance Fairs or having romantic ideals, but I find it too common and obvious in this subgenre.  Finally, urban fantasy seems to really want to meld with the noir detective novel. A lot.

Rosemary and Rue is no different, in many ways, from all the other urban fantasy I have read. I mean, the setting, plot, and main character is very similar to what I have read before. This is no great literature – however, the story was entertaining and comfortably distracting from daily stressors.  In other words, this will read like all other urban fantasy, more or less. And, I suspect, readers will enjoy this one just as they enjoy other urban fantasy novels, more or less.

That is not to say I do not appreciate some things in this novel. As I mentioned above, the usage of the Fae mythology is relatively unique. But also the author seems to have woven a few interesting threads of Shakespeare and his mythos into this series.  That is fun and I liked it. Another key thing is the prologue of the novel is a rather unique way to introduce readers to the character and setting; I was surprised by it!

As a main character, October Daye, or Toby, manifests all the usual personality traits readers have come to know and love. Their actual life is a messy struggle. They are aloof, sullen, snarky, and/or impatient.  They think they are more independent than they are, but yet are constantly seeking assistance from people. I liked October well enough, she struck me as an honest personality…..even though in the beginning she really did seem to be trying too hard to be too snarky.  (The best example of forced snark, for me, is Ben Aaronovitch’s series.)  However, I have to tell you, I did laugh at a couple of her lines…….. like I said:  entertaining!

Still, the villain is probably quite obvious from the start – although the author really does try to give us a nice selection of options to pick from.  The reason the villain is so obvious, though, is that they are also a yucky character. So, even if they were not the villain, they are still the yuckiest in the novel. The end scenes are also very stereotypical and standard “end of story” scenes. Almost so much so that it was ridiculous.  I could have written out what was about to happen next. Anyway, the scenario is resolved.  Unlike a lot of fiction these days, I really appreciated the closure that this novel gives. No loose ends, no mysterious groan-worthy hangers-on, no sickening setups for future novels in the series.  I have to give props to the author for ending the novel tightly.

For fans of Grimm tv series, urban fantasy readers, fans of the Faerie realm.

3 stars

Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot - Ben Aaronovich; 2011, Del Rey

Midnight Riot – Ben Aaronovich; 2011, Del Rey

I finished reading Midnight Riot yesterday and am dismayed by how long it took to get through this thing.  Well, it has been on my to-be-read Himalaya for years. Finally, I said to myself that was quite long enough and forced myself to make it the next selection.  I was really expecting to like it because so many other readers whose opinions I trust had very good things to say about this.  Sadly, I was disappointed.

Midnight Riot is the USA title of Rivers of London.  It is the first book in the series that is also named Rivers of London.  I guess the publisher felt that having “London” in the title would be a detriment to USA sales.  I really am not thrilled when publishers do that. I have enough to remember and think about without adding alternate titles. Anyway, this was first published in 2011 and is the first of five (as of this date) novels in the series. I do own the other five. (A fellow reader gave me the whole set.)

I am a second-generation American and I have never been to England.  I have been to Italy and Greece. I thoroughly study the Continental intelligentsia.  If I were to be transplanted from the USA to somewhere in Europe, I would likely acclimate the best in Poland.  Almost everything about Great Britain is a mystery to me. Everything the British do seems complexified without necessity.

I am sharing this to say that this lack of familiarity and understanding of things of the Empire did affect my enjoyment of this novel.  In order to really be engaged here, the reader should have a rudimentary knowledge of British schooling, law enforcement, and the general layout of London.  Charing Cross and the River Thames are two locations/geographies that readers really need to have a concept for and about.  I did not. I still don’t, if I’m being totally honest.  I think if I knew anything at all about the Thames, I probably could have done a little better with the novel.

Finally, the slang and nicknames – if you don’t know the official, standard things about England, certainly the slang and such will have no relevance to you.  And that is what I experienced.  Granted, most of the meaning can be gotten via context, but honestly, having to use context to read an urban-fantasy/action thriller kind of kills the writing.

The writing is a bit different than the slew of urban-fantasy novels we have been bombarded with in the last five years.  Aaronovitch does attempt to make his main character intelligent, resourceful, and studious.  The magic system in the book is, for better or worse, “scientific.”  And there is a dose of history, physics, and religion to add to the depth.  However, the main character (Peter Grant) was not as funny as he thinks himself to be.  Many of the reviews I read suggested that Peter is just so funny and that this book is witty and humorous.  Well, it is mighty clear which parts such reviews are referencing, but I did not find them all too funny.  I found most of them trying-too-hard-to-be funny. The sarcasm and the wit was forced, as if the author said: “I have to have a snarky line here.”

The storyline is okay. Nothing great. Frankly, it should have been better.  There are many points where it gets lost or muddled.  In fact, at the end the villain got to be too convoluted for me to really, truly follow. Who is this ghost now? What are they doing this for, again?  I guess ghosts are a bit strange and perplexing, but I should be able to identify the main villain.  At the end, I feel like we defeated the bad guy two or three times.  And thinking about it, Peter did not really do much except run around.  In the end, he did not really FIX anything.  Novel writing 101:  The Resolution….. was absent.

A final complaint I have is that there are parts that are a bit more dark and/or vulgar than I think was necessary. I am definitely not looking for sanitized and pretty stories.  I am, however, trying to avoid vulgarity that is purposeless and darkness that is incongruous with the rest of the book.  All of this being said, I will probably try again with book two in this series.  Nevertheless, I was disappointed with book one and I really wanted much better.

2 stars

The Figure in the Shadows

Figure in the ShadowsThe Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

White Cat

White CatWhite Cat by Holly Black is the only book I’ve read by the author. It was published in 2010 and is a young adult urban fantasy.  I picked up a hardback copy from a bargain table for $3.  I read this in one day.  I do not usually read young adult (or, really, urban fantasy for that matter), but it was an okay read for an afternoon wherein I just did not want to tackle anything but relaxing and lounging.

It’s actually the first novel in a (I think) trilogy. I believe the second book is published, but I have not actually seen it – but I cannot say I have really looked for it, either.  I picked it up for the price and because the premise seemed vaguely interesting. From the website:

“Cassel comes from a family of curse workers — people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they’re all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider……”

Ultimately, it was not entirely as expected – which is both good and bad.  I was interested in the concept of curse workers because it seems a bit more unique than the standard “I have magic powers” that permeates much of urban fantasy.  Also, the main character who is written in first-person is male and the author is female – so I was interested to see if the author could pull off a convincing voice.  Further, the title has cat in it – and I do love cats. Sucker, I know….

Cassel is the main character – he’s one of three brothers in a family that is well-versed in utilizing their “curse worker” skills to con, assault, and thug their way through things.  Cassel, unfortunately, does not have the “worker” power.  Naturally, he’s marginalized in his family because of this.  Cassel, though, strives very hard to be normal.  In fact, that’s the subplot of the entire novel – Cassel’s effort to live a normal life among normal people; distancing himself from the antics of his family.  Unfortunately, one of the main things that holds Cassel back from normalcy are the skills he picked up from his mother, who is in jail.  His mother is the consummate con artist.  Also, Cassel struggles to deal with the memory of having killed his best friend, Lila, several years back.

Characters wear gloves to prevent purposeful/accidental touches by “workers.”  Some of this made sense, but some of this seemed forced. I am not sure it works entirely with the concept of curse workers (i.e. I am sure there are loopholes/problems that astute critical readers might discover), but I just accepted the element and read onward.

Honestly, Cassel is a fairly likeable character. The author does pull off a decent male voice.  One of the fun nuances that enlivens [sic] Cassel is his love for coffee.  It’s little tidbits like this that develop characters and make them seem 3D. So, kudos to the author for that.  However, the girl who Cassel supposedly killed – she’s awful. Most of the time, reading this book, I disliked her and I truly do not understand why a decent chap like Cassel would even be slightly in love with Lila. She’s hideous.  She’s also the daughter of the big crime Czar of the Zucharov family.  Yes, they’re Russian.  This is something that the author does not pull off convincingly – a Russian crime family.  It’s a little hokey and none of the Russians have that “Russian-ness” that one would expect.  The problem with this is that it makes it seem like the author just made the family Russian because she could and it might make the novel seem a bit “exotic.”

Overall, three stars.  I am really not great at rating young adult novels. This one was something different than I expected, but it was not wretched and I was fairly entertained throughout. Definitely for youth 15+.

3 stars

Soulless

SoullessSoulless by Gail Carriger was published in 2009 by Orbit.  It is the first book of the “Parasol Protectorate” series starring, I assume, the character Alexia Tarabotti. My copy came with a small interview with the author and I went to her website.  Ms. Carriger is amusing and witty. Honestly, the novel itself is neither erudite or exceedingly intelligent, I feel like Carriger could easily write much more intelligent novels.  However, I’m not sure she really needs to. After all, I found this novel to be rather entertaining.

The basic idea of the novel is that since the “dark ages,” Europe (especially England) has come to terms with the existence of supernaturals – and the supernaturals have mostly integrated into the normal society.  The Crown has advisors who are supernaturals and help her to make national decisions.  Many of the upper crust of society contains both normals and supernaturals – including the supporting main character, Lord Macon, who is a werewolf.  Werewolves live in packs lead by alphas (Lord Macon is an alpha) and live in districts/counties.  Lord Macon also runs the BUR, which is a department which monitors supernatural activity in the district.

It has been said that this novel is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.  That is probably true.  This is basically a spoof of “Victorian ideals” and the current obsession with Vampires and Werewolves in mass media entertainment. Carriger writes a very funny spoof. It’s not entirely intended as a spoof, of course. However, it was amusing enough to read the interactions between Alexia and the “upper-crust” of society as well as the interactions between the servants of the vampire/werewolf community.

Alexia is a fun character because she is stubborn and outspoken. She doesn’t fit into the society like she should and she possesses a lot more bravery and knowledge than her peers.  This is what attracts her to Lord Macon – and he to her. The sex in the book is really comical, a bit too much of it for my tastes – even though it’s not entirely graphic.

I would like to read the next book in the series.  It probably will not be just more of the same, because the end of Soulless leaves Alexia in some interesting circumstances and I’d be interested in seeing what happens next.  It’s not something that I am really burning to read, but I suppose for a light read that would be fine. Carriger obviously has a well-developed sense of humor and can channel classic English novels into a light novel.

3 stars