Discount Armageddon, Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon, Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon, Seanan McGuire

I had an ARC of this in my TBR pile–so I must have gotten it from the publisher back when I was reviewing for RT although I know I didn’t review it for that publication (I do recall being sad about sending it off to someone else because I enjoy McGuire’s Toby Daye series a lot).

Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon is so much FUN.

Verity Price is a cryptozoologist who studies–naturally–cryptids. In their natural habitats which, in this case, is New York City. Verity is also  competitive ballroom dancer and very much undercover–so much so that she’s working at a strip bar as a cocktail waitress (hence the outfit on the cover–it pretty much matches her working uniform as described in the book–although I can’t figure out where the bottom half of her left leg is).

Her entire family studies cryptids, in fact–they left the Covenant of St. George several generations ago in the wake of a philosophical dispute: the Covenant wanted to exterminate them all,  the Prices felt that as long as the cryptids weren’t eating or hurting humans (much) they deserved to be left alone.

The worldbuilding is nicely detailed and all the bits and pieces fit together nicely. There’s a fantastic diversity of characters and I really enjoyed the variety of different cryptids and the way McGuire made them fit into the world.

There’s a lot of action and climbing around on rooftops as well as mucking about in sewers. Verity is definitely more intelligent than your run of the mill urban fantasy protagonist and I am very pleased to say that all sexy times in this book are 100% consensual between all parties and there’s no weird fated mate crap going on. In fact, the romance in this book is complicated by the fact that Dominic is a member of the Covenant and takes some convincing (I will say that his abrupt turnaround is a weakness of the book). The conflict of the book centers on disappearing cryptid women and the possibility of a snake cult and the last dragon in the world.

Verity’s family is great and I want to see more of them, especially her cousin Sarah and her sister Antimony and the Aeslin mice are, seriously, the best thing ever and I love them so. If you’re looking for a fast-paced and fun urban fantasy that manages to avoid nearly all the pitfalls of the genre (no leather pants! and a plot-relevant reason for the high heels!), Discount Armageddon just might fit the bill.

Blood Oranges, Kathleen Tierney

Blood Oranges, by Caitlín R. Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney

Blood Oranges, by Caitlín R. Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney

First things first: Kathleen Tierney is an open pseudonym for horror writer Caitlín R. Kiernan–this is important because while it is an urban fantasy, it’s not like any urban fantasy I’ve ever read. It’s what happens to urban fantasy when a horror writer gets her hands on it.

The protagonist of Blood Oranges is Siobhan Quinn, a foul-mouthed street kid junkie turned demon hunter turned werewolf-vampire hybrid–she trades her addiction to smack to one to blood, more or less.

This book is a gleeful takedown of nearly every single tired trope employed in paranormal romances and fantasies. It is delightful and if you’re as tired as I am of morally bankrupt characters kicking preternatural creature ass while wearing leather pants, well, this is the book for you.

Quinn is the most unreliable of narrators and she’s constantly breaking the fourth wall. She’s dirty, smelly, and often caked in blood–and yet her narrative voice is really wonderful and once I started reading I couldn’t put it down (this is a testament to the Tierney’s immense skill as a writer).

The story is also tremendously engaging and it’s refreshing as hell to see these preternatural creatures described and characterized as the monsters they actually are–the vampires are inhuman and totally freaky and I totally wouldn’t want to meet any of them in the night.

Basically, Quinn gets turned into a vampire-werewolf (a werepire? a vampwolf?) as an apparently indirect consequence of getting in the middle of a job gone bad and the entire plot flows from there. Quinn makes things up, revises her accounts of previous events in the book, and declares that since she finds action sequences in books boring that she’s not going to have any. It’s fantastic.

What I especially like is the way that Quinn doesn’t sugar-coat anything she’s done or try to make it more than what it is–she’s killing people in order to survive and there really is no excuse about it. She’s so up-front about being a monster in a way that I have often wished would happen in other novels I’ve read in the genre (coughAnitaBlakecough).

One of my favorite scenes is Quinn’s trip to the MAC counter at the Nordstrom’s. It is such a send-up of the heroine getting a makeover scene that sometimes happens in these kinds of books–you know, when the girl has a fancy box delivered to her from a fancy store and there’s some sort of impractical yet still wearable outfit in it that is perfectly tailored to her body and which will perform flawlessly during the upcoming bloodbath. In this scene, Quinn walks to the mall and gets some foundation and powder from MAC and gives the salesgirl a hilariously fake and contradictory story about why she looks so terrible. It’s a thing of beauty.

Also a thing of beauty is this:

Sure, I’m a blood-drinking freak and a loup, but I only prey on the dregs of society, so I’m just doing a public service, right? Bullshit. I called it bullshit then, and, two years later, I still call it bullshit, that attitude or mind-set or whatever it is. That belief that great swaths of humanity are disposable, just so long as no one gets wise to the fact they’re being disposed of.

And with this paragraph, Siobhan Quinn proves that she’s more self-aware than probably 95% of the urban fantasy protagonists out there and it’s just so damn refreshing.  One of my biggest problems with the genre is the romanticization of murder and mayhem and the glorification of monsters. They’re monsters for a reason.

Tierney mentions in her Author’s Note that this book is her taking back the language of the night, if only for herself. I think she’s taken it back for all of us who have been watching with a kind of despair as the power of these monstrous creatures has been gradually lessened and diminished.

I can’t wait to read the next one.

Moonshine, Alaya Johnson

Moonshine, Alaya Johnson

Moonshine, Alaya Johnson

So the other day on Twitter I said, “Waaah, I need something to read that is fun and well-written and smart,” and I got a lot of great suggestions but this book–Alaya Johnson’s Moonshine–was exactly what I was looking for. It’s always awesome when someone can recommend exactly the book that will scratch my itch (thank you, person I am not sure wants to be named!).

Set in 1920’s New York, this book is told from the point of view of Zephyr Hollis,  who is a very complicated person. She’s the daughter of a demon-hunter, is somehow immune to vampires, and is a staunch advocate for the rights of what are called in this New York, “Others”–vampires, skinwalkers, faeries, and other supernatural creatures. She also teaches night school and attends protests in what little free time she has.  Zephyr is awesome.

As the book opens, Zephyr comes across a little boy who has just been turned into a vampire and since she can’t leave any cause unchampioned, she decides to take him with her and find a safe place to stow him until he gets over the worst of being changed into a vampire (in this setting, the younger you’re turned, the more likely you are to lose your memory and significant parts of your personality). One her students, Amir, offers to help with the boy if, in exchange, she’ll help him find Rinaldo, Italian mob boss and master vampire. Amir, of course, has secrets of his own and they’re not exactly small ones.

Zephyr agrees and with that the plot is off and running.  I found it a trifle predictable in places, but I was okay with that–part of the fun of this book was trying to see how much I could figure out before Zephyr did.

Johnson’s worldbuilding is seriously excellent–this alternate New York City is a seamless blend of history and fantasy and has a staggeringly diverse cast of characters. In this book, paranormal creatures aren’t a substitute for characters of color–they are in addition to characters of color. This is, in many ways, extraordinary for the genre (and I wish it weren’t). On top of that, Johnson’s characters are real multi-dimensional people, where the definition of what constitutes a people is fairly broad–they have lives of their own, they have families and prejudices and personal hobby horses and it’s a gloriously messy mix of personalities.

My favorite thing about this book, in fact, was the way that Johnson dealt with these difficult and complicated issues. The text acknowledges these issues quite explicitly in the form of Zephyr who is compelled to use what privilege she has in the service of those who have less. The awful reality of prejudice and systemic oppression is a major theme in this book but in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending and always in service of a compelling story about one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve run across in paranormal fantasy in a long, long time. I’ll definitely be picking up the second book as well as adding Johnson’s other books to my ever-expanding wishlist.

Urban Fantasy Recommendations

So last week I talked about a lot of things I don’t like about urban and paranormal fantasy. But there are a a goodly number of books that fit this genre that I do like and I thought I’d mention them. I’m going to break them up into two categories, Old School and New School, for reasons that I hope are obvious.

Book CoverWar for the Oaks, Emma BullMythago Wood, Robert HoldstockElfland, Freda Warrington

Old School

  • Charles de Lint, Moonheart. This is one of the very first urban fantasies I read in the early 1990’s and while it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, I have very fond memories of it. There’s a good chance I’ll pick it up and re-read it fairly soon.
  • Emma Bull, War for the Oaks. Oh, EDDI. And your rock and roll singing and the strong sense of place and your growing knowledge of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. This really is one of the most important books in the genre.
  • Diana L. Paxson, Brisingamen. I’m not going to lie: this isn’t a good book. But it’s a book that I spent many years trying to track down in the early 1990’s and if nothing else, I have a bit of nostalgia for that pre-world wide web time when trying to find an out of print book was an adventure (as far as I know, it’s been out of print since shortly after its publication). It’s set in San Francisco and the main character finds herself possessed by Freyja by way of a magic necklace. It is quite likely as ridiculous as it sounds and I swear, I am going to reread it soon. Along with everything else I’m going to reread.
  • Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Not precisely urban fantasy, but if you take it to mean the intersection of a magical world with the more mundane world, then this book and its sequels more than fit the bill. Holdstock’s style is ridiculously easy to mock (me and my best friend have long-running joke about proto-Celtic gray-green chalk-faced people), but it is definitely an original story that has a lot going on in it.
  • Freda Warrington, Elfland. This, surprisingly, is a fairly new book. Warrington isn’t very well known in the US and based on this book and its follow-up, MidsummerNight, that’s a damn shame. These both have the dreamy otherworldly feeling of early Charles de Lint but with characters who are a bit more grounded than de Lint’s tend to be.

Rosemary and Rue, Seanan McGuireBlood Engines, T.A. PrattMidnight Riot, Ben AaronovitchBook Cover

New School

  • Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue. The first of the October Daye books. Toby’s newly returned to human form after spending 14 years as a fish (I often wonder if her daughter will ever have cause to say, “My mother was a fish.”) and is avoiding both the human and faerie sides of her heritage. Toby’s a great character and she grows and changes over the course of the series and the stakes are real.
  • T.A. Pratt, Blood Engines. The first Marla Mason book. This is one of my very favorite urban fantasy series–Marla’s complicated and she knows she’s not a nice or good person and she knows that there will be repercussions to the actions she takes to protect herself and her city. And she kicks ass in sweatpants and sensible shoes.
  • Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot/Rivers of London. The first Peter Grant book. OMG how do I love these books? They’re basically police procedurals with magic but the heart of these books really is the detective work–Peter has to work for everything and at the end of the third book, he still only knows four measly spells. The setting is wonderfully diverse and Peter is himself a person of color. (The original US cover is awful; my understanding is that they’re going to be swapping them for the much superior British covers in subsequent editions.)
  • Ilona Andrews, On the Edge. This is the first of the Edge novels. I’ve only read the first two, but I really liked them and I’ll tell you why: they’re rural and the main characters are poor. I think the genre has really gotten hidebound in some ways, so it’s great to see books that focus on rural people who don’t have a lot of material assets. These books do have a very strong romantic element, which I enjoyed but which I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. My understanding is that Steel’s Edge will be the last one in this series for a while if not permanently and that makes me sadface.

One thing that really pops out at me as I write this post is how different the two sets of covers are–and I think that speaks to the different audiences for these books and how the genre changed so drastically in what seemed to be a very short period of time.

Natalie’s Theory of Urban Fantasy

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton (cropped)

I’ve been reading urban fantasy since the early 1990’s and I’ve been watching it expand like whoa in the years since Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series were first published.

However, as Hamilton and Harris’s books became increasingly popular, the sub-genre metamorphosed into something very different from what I started reading: books with “strong female characters”, sometimes sympathetic monsters, extended action sequences, and a lot of dodgy worldbuilding.

I can usually tell within a handful of pages if an author I’ve never read before is writing from a SF/F or romance perspective. While it will earn me no love from certain quarters, I’ll say it anyway: The dodgier the worldbuilding and the more supernaturally hot the monsters, the more likely the author either writes romance or has read a lot of romance. And conversely, writers that come from SF/F  often fall short on characterization and emotional development. This isn’t a slur against either genre–I love both–it’s just that the emphasis tends to lead to different kinds of books.

In late 2005, when it came time for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominations, I requested a new category for urban fantasy. I was seeing more of these books show up–some were quite good and I didn’t want to use up all my nominations on them because I had other fantasy novels I liked, too. After a lot of discussion (I still have the emails), it was agreed that I could have a “modern-day fantasy” category as the general feeling was that the word “urban” was potentially confusing and that “contemporary fantasy” was too likely to be mixed up with “contemporary romance”. I was pretty unhappy about it but I took it–better than nothing, after all.  By late 2006, there was a separate urban fantasy section in the magazine and the “modern-day fantasy” category morphed into the urban fantasy one that we all know and love today.

So. Here’s the thing. Since that moment, that year before urban fantasy really burst onto the scene–damn near fully formed–I have been musing over a half-assed theory of urban fantasy.

See, I think these new style urban fantasies–I am going to call them paranormal fantasies to differentiate them from what came before–have a lot more in common with gothic novels and what I’ve always called romantic suspense–Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart–than they do with the initial iteration of the genre through the mid-1990’s.

All these type of books have, at their heart, a kind of anxiety about how women fit into the world and I don’t think it’s an accident that here in the United States, in a post-9/11 world, there is suddenly a proliferation of paranormal fantasy.

In all these genres, the protagonists are often women in a transitional phase in their lives. They find themselves with more responsibility–they have inherited property, they have supernatural abilities, they and/or those close to them are in peril. There are unseen and possibly magical enemies and difficulties that must be surmounted and dire consequences if they are not.

However, there is one thing these books are focused on in a way that romantic suspense is not–and that is the Other. The world has either changed or aspects of the world have become known that were hidden and there are monsters. Some of them are allied with the protagonist, but most of them are not. Alliances shift–a friendly monster in the first book may become an enemy by the end of the series and vice versa. You can’t count on what you thought you knew about the world because it is constantly changing. The speed at which things change in our world is, at times, frenetic, and this is reflected in paranormal fantasy. American society has–I am deliberately using a very broad brush here–deemed certain cultures to be monstrous (whether or not they actually are) and that tension is reflected in a lot of paranormal fantasy.

Despite the fact that these books are generally written by and for women and usually have female protagonists (and a headless woman in an unnatural pose wearing leather pants on the cover), these protagonists tend to not have a lot of agency. Their roles are prescribed by the kind of book they’re in and it is the rare book that deviates from the formula of kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and magical abilities.

Once in a while, the protagonist is delighted to be living this kind of life but it is typically portrayed as a duty, something to be gotten through until a heteronormative romantic partnership can be established while the enemy is getting its ass kicked. There is a persistent will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic running through many of these books that I find problematic and reductive and more than a little bit distracting–if the protagonist is trying to save the world from the evil vampires, why is she mooning over the nice vampire’s steely blue eyes and taut ass? I mean, I get that one can’t be all business all the time but does her non-ass-kicking time always have to be taken up with dating? Can’t she do jigsaw puzzles or knit? I hear that decorative gourds are very interesting, too.  If her role in this world is biologically determined by her having magical abilities, must it also be tied to her hormones? Are there any paranormal fantasies where the protagonist is bitten by a radioactive spider (or its equivalent)?  Or do bites from sexy vampires only count?

And while I’m talking about radioactive spiders, what about the responsibility that comes with these magic powers? There is an awful lot of killing of people who, apparently, deserve to die because they are evil due to their inherent abilities or who they are related to. There are rarely any repercussions for these murders and while the protagonist may pay lip service to feeling bad about it, there is rarely any true atonement for these actions. These characters typically live in worlds that are black and white with very little nuance. The minute one discovers one’s magical ass-kicking abilities, one loses whatever moral compass that one may have had previously.  The reader rarely, if ever, sees these characters wrestling with any kind of moral dilemma regarding these actions which they feel they must take. All too often, protagonists descend into moral bankruptcy through the course of a series–they become less human, less relatable, less heroic. And at the end, they’re all used up–and then all they’re good for is making a commitment to their supernatural lover and (if possible) having babies.

There are only so many books I can read about a kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and unexplained magical abilities and her adventures (and possible sexy times) with supernatural creatures while fighting evil before hitting overload. After a while, they all start to feel like the same book. Even making your protagonist a dude doesn’t really help much.

I want to see characters who struggle with the choices they have to make, who know that all their choices are shitty choices, and who have to live with the consequences of the choice. I want them to lose friends and allies and gain enemies. I want them to have to fight for their survival and I don’t want the happy ending to be assured from the get-go. I want unhappy endings and ostracized protagonists whose only consolation is that they did the best they could with the lousy cards they were dealt. Most of all, I want stories that are honestly written by authors who know what kind of fire they’re playing with and who understand that demonizing those that are different from the mainstream hurts actual real people in this world. In a world that is changing so quickly, today’s friendly vampire is potentially tomorrow’s bad vampire, and who gets to make that decision anyhow?  When the world in a book is defined only in shades of black and white, what happens to everyone in between?  And what happens when another Other comes along and redefines everything again?

If the protagonist is going to don leather pants and kick ass in order to save the world, I’d like her to stop and think about what she’s doing and why–because someday she might find herself on the other side of the ass-kicking equation because someone, somewhere, has decided that she is Other.

And I sure would like her to rethink the leather pants and high heels, too.

(Many many many thanks to Donna and Fran for their help hammering this into shape. Without them, this would be a crazy train heading into crazy town with a boring history lesson at the beginning. Fran would also like the record to reflect that she doesn’t know diddlysquat about urban/paranormal fantasy and that her primary role in this was to help me get the train on the tracks, to belabor the metaphor.)