Saturday, May 10, 2014

Let Shambling Stagger Onto Your Reading List

If you like genre fiction in general and short stories in particular, you owe Mur Lafferty some respect. Why? A prolific podcaster for over a decade, she has been instrumental in bolstering shows that have kept short-form SF, fantasy, and horror sitting up in their hospital beds and smiling. No small feat given how we dwell in the age of the novel. But despite having listened to her podcasts for years, I'd never sampled her fiction and decided to remedy that with The Shambling Guide to New York City, a book that's part urban fantasy and part travel guide for the supernaturally enabled.

The first rule? Don't call them monsters. Vampires or zombies, water sprites or fire demons, Norse deities or randy succubi, it doesn't matter. All of them consider the word an insult. If you must refer to the strange creatures that dwell secretly among us by a collective term, call them coterie. That leads to the second rule: You don't want to insult them. Zoë Norris is about to learn that first hand. See, Zoë has returned to her childhood home of New York City in unemployed disgrace, a once-successful travel writer who saw everything go south after an affair with her boss. Not that she knew it was an affair at the time; her employer had deftly hidden his matrimonial status until his wife vandalized Zoë's home. Now she's broke, depressed, and desperate, so when she happens across a flyer advertising a travel writing job at Underground Publishing, it seems a godsend, the perfect fit for her. She applies and get accepted, not knowing that she'll soon be working with several species of undead, an incubus who quickly develops a crush on her, and a Welsh goddess of the underworld. As if that wasn't bad enough to have coterie coworkers who could eat her for lunch, Zoë soon will learn that she may be all that stands between New York and destruction.

The Shambling Guide starts off a little slow, if for no other reason than the all the shiny has been rubbed off on the tropes of urban fantasy from constant use. We know that the protagonist will get rudely dropped into a world beneath the world, will struggle to accept it, and then will somehow find his place in it. So far so familiar. Fortunately, Lafferty quickly moves past this stage, unfurling both a delightfully imaginative setting and a humdinger (to use the vernacular) of a plot. I won't spoil the latter much since discovery is part of its delight, except to say that the climax involves fighting a massive golem made out of airplanes (airplanes!). If that somehow doesn't sell you, let me expound on the former. Lafferty intersperses each chapter with tidbits from the titular guide, introducing readers to New York from a coterie point of view. For instance, the Statue of Liberty represents not freedom to the coterie but rather the New World's longstanding hostility toward them since it's actually the tomb of the giant French demon Chandal L'énorme. Vampires have created an extreme race called Tough Blooder where humans afflicted with hemochromatosis (an overabundance of iron) are periodically pounded upon by pointy-teethed undead as part of their "treatment." The Rockefeller Christmas tree was planted by a descendant of Odin from one of the seeds of Yggdrasil. Wonderful stuff. Lafferty has earned her place in both my listening and reading lists for a long time to come.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Llima Orosa)

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