Although it may have cooled a little from its height of popularity, urban fantasy remains a huge part of the speculative fiction landscape, and since we have such a bumper crop reviewed this month, I wanted to take a closer look at why it is popular with readers.
The books that fall into this category usually share a contemporary setting that is our real world but different. Magical powers, mythical beings, and horrifying monsters might be all around in an urban fantasy. The appeal for many readers is that combination of the familiar and the fantastic.
Sometimes the knowledge of supernatural creatures is limited to a small group of people, as in Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series (Broken Homes) about a police constable/wizard apprentice and Mur Lafferty’s fun series (Ghost Train to New Orleans) about an editor of supernatural travel guides. Sometimes the monsters are out of the closet (e.g., Patricia Briggs’s latest Mercy Thompson book, Night Broken), and the tension comes from humans and others interacting. Some titles, such as Anne Bishop’s Murder of Crows, twist and alter our world, and that can be a big draw for readers who wonder about how our reality would be different with fantasy creatures in control.
Urban fantasy is also a big blending genre, with books often including mystery plots and romantic story lines. Unlike epic or high fantasy in which series often involve long story arcs spread across multiple books, urban fantasy series often have self-contained narratives, with only the main characters and the setting carrying through from book to book. From funny and silly to dark and scary, there is a lot of tonal range in these titles, which means there is always something new to try. In this month’s works, werewolves, wizards, vampires, and more lie in wait to feed readers’ hunger for this popular subgenre.
Bishop, Anne. Murder of Crows: A Novel of the Others. Roc: NAL. (Others, Vol. 2). Mar. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9780451465269. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101637944. FANTASY
Living among the shifters, vampires, and earth elementals known as the Others is a dangerous proposition for humans, but Meg Corbyn is no ordinary mortal. As a cassandra sangue Meg can see the future when her skin is cut. In 2013’s Written in Red, Meg had just escaped from the compound where young women with her abilities are held captive and cut for the benefit of rich and powerful men. In this sequel, Meg has earned her place in the Others’ Courtyard but still struggles with the urge to cut herself. Everything points to a violent confrontation between the Others, who control most of the world, and the smaller human population, who must never forget that they will always be prey to the powerful natives. VERDICT Bishop excels at creating irresistible dark worlds, but this series avoids some of the baroque excesses of her popular “Black Jewels” universe while still having that startling otherness and a touch of sensuality. Her alternate America in which the natural world belongs to the Others and humans are interlopers is fascinating.
Briggs, Patricia. Night Broken: A Mercy Thompson Novel. Ace: Berkley. (Mercy Thompson, Vol. 8). Mar. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780425256749. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101638835. FANTASY
Coyote shape-changer Mercy Thompson has endured a lot to get to her happy ending of a loving marriage to alpha werewolf Adam Hauptman, but all it takes is one manipulative ex-wife to wreck Mercy’s peace. When Christy, Adam’s former spouse, calls begging for help and sanctuary from a vicious thug who beat her, it arouses the pack’s protective instincts, but having Christy in the house is not going to be easy for Mercy. Things get complicated when it is discovered that Christy’s bad date is actually an enraged and powerful entity that will stop at nothing to get her back. VERDICT This is one of the best series in urban fantasy, with a heroine who continues to grow and yet always remains true to herself. The pages fly by with action, emotion, and even some satisfying new information about Mercy’s relationship with trickster god Coyote, her father.
Lafferty, Mur. Ghost Train to New Orleans. Orbit. Mar. 2014. 352p. ISBN . pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780316221153. FANTASY
In the first book of this series (The Shambling Guide to New York City) Zoe Norris took a job at Underground Publications editing an unusual series of books: travel guides for the zombies, vampires, and other supernatural creatures, collectively known as the “coterie.” Her initiation into the secret world of the monsters living in the shadows continues as Zoe decides that the second guide they release will be for New Orleans, a haven for many coterie. The trip to the Big Easy is harder than expected as some of Zoe’s coworkers are waiting for her to fail and her boyfriend is coming along to find a cure that will prevent him from turning into a zombie. Zoe is also concealing that she is one of a very rare group of human coterie that can speak to the spirit of cities, and New Orleans has been waiting for a citytalker just like her. VERDICT Funny, smart, and original, this outing, with its appealing characters and unusual take on urban fantasy tropes, is a delightful addition to the series.
Price, Daniel. The Flight of the Silvers. Blue Rider. Feb. 2014. 608p. ISBN 9780399164989. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101620045. SF
Moments before the world ends in a crush of white and chaos, six Americans are saved by mysterious strangers who clamp silver bracelets on their wrists. Though they witness the horror of the apocalypse, the survivors are protected by their jewelry and transported to an alternate America. In this new reality, the six “Silvers,” so called for their bracelets, find that they have strange powers to manipulate time. Now the six—an actress, her widowed sister, two teenagers, an artist, and a homeless ex-prodigy—must figure out why they were saved by the frightening and elusive Pelletiers. As the Silvers bond into a new family, they discover that they are not the only humans with power over time, and some of those others are gunning for the Silvers. Now the race is on, not only to escape their enemies but to figure out the motives of the Pelletiers and to prevent another coming apocalypse. VERDICT This first volume in a planned trilogy is fascinating sf; Price’s (Slick) strong, engaging characters and fast-moving plot will keep readers on their toes. Highly recommended for fans of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Abrams. 2013. 352p. illus. ISBN 9781419704420. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781613124635. COMM
There are plenty of books on the market about fiction writing and each has its own take on what will help you get from blank page to completed novel. But VanderMeer (Finch; The Steampunk Bible) has done something new here. His guide hits all the topics a how-to book should cover—description, point of view, dialog, characterization, etc.—and can be used by writers of any kind of fiction as an instruction manual for constructing narrative. Where it differs is that VanderMeer aims to engage the imagination that is core to the work of sf and fantasy writers. Further distinguishing this title from other writing guides is its lavish presentation. The volume is simply gorgeous. Stuffed with full-page artwork and sneaky little decorative flourishes, it is a book that will feed the imagination even as it imparts practicalities. VanderMeer, who is himself a three-time World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula nominee, also pulls in essays from luminaries in the speculative fiction field such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles Yu, Lev Grossman, and Neil Gaiman, which greatly enhance the work. Special credit is also due to Jeremy Zerfoss, who was the main artist for this project. VERDICT Because it is so layered and filled with text, tips, and links to online extras, this book can be read again and again by both those who want to learn the craft of writing and those interested in the process of others.
MASS MARKET PAPERBACKS OF NOTE
Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes. DAW. (Peter Grant, Vol. 4). Feb. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780756409609. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698143715. FANTASY
Peter Grant is still learning the ropes as both a police constable and as an apprentice to England’s last official practicing wizard, DCI Thomas Nightingale. Their department, the Folly, catches all the cases in London that have a whiff of the supernatural about them, and one recent case seems to point Peter and Nightingale to the trail of the rogue magician they have been chasing, known only as the Faceless Man. VERDICT The minutia of police work combines with a unique take on a secretly magical London for one of the more original urban fantasy series around. This fourth volume (after 2013’s Whispers Underground) meanders a bit, and one could wish for a little more character growth from the wisecracking Peter, but once the action picks up, it races to an exciting finish.
Green, Chris Marie. Only the Good Die Young: Jensen Murphy, Ghost for Hire. Roc: NAL. Feb. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780451416995. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101600825 FANTASY
When Jensen Murphy was murdered 30 years ago, she became a spirit caught in a loop, reliving her own death until medium Amanda Lee breaks her out of the cycle. Amanda has her own agenda for wanting a ghost at her beck and call, but Jensen first has to get used to her spectral life. VERDICT This first volume in a new series is a little rough around the edges, but those looking for a different kind of urban fantasy heroine might want to give it a try.
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In December, the Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) announced Samuel R. Delany as its 2013 pick for the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, which recognizes an author’s lifetime achievements in the genre. Delany is the author of many beloved works including Nova, Babel-17, and Dhalgren and has been honored numerous times in his career with both the Nebula and Hugo awards. Delany will receive the award at the Nebula ceremonies in May. For librarians and readers looking for a who’s who in sf to get a grounding in the genre, the list of past Grand Masters (sfwa.org/grandmaster) is a great place to start. For fans wanting to revisit favorite titles and new readers curious to explore this master of provocative speculative fiction, Open Road Media has just released nine of Delany’s titles as ebooks, including the aforementioned works and his Hugo Award–winning literary memoir, The Motion of Light in Water. For the full list, see openroadmedia.com/samuel-r-delany.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is the latest well-known genre author to veer from the traditional publishing process by using Kickstarter to support her efforts to write a new fantasy novel. With authors both new and old looking hard for fresh ways to get their books in front of readers, crowdfunded efforts such as Kickstarter campaigns are gaining steam. Scarborough and others are especially interested in these alternate publishing paths when they want to write further books in series that have cooled off for their publisher. In her press release for the campaign, Scarborough explains, “When I spend the time to create a new world, and then my publisher tells me after three titles set in that world that it’s time to move on, I feel like a little girl who built a sand castle only to have her big brother knock it down. With indie publishing, my sand castles are not destroyed after all.”
Scarborough set (and exceeded) her modest goal of $5,000 for The Dragon, the Witch and the Railroad, which will be a new entry in her traditional fantasy series “Songs from the Seashell Archives.” Those supporters who help fund campaigns with services like Kickstarter often get bonus content or “rewards” from authors for their support, forging a new kind of connection between creators and consumers. With most self-publishing, an author still has to front the expenses of time, editing, and production without any guarantee of sales. In contrast, many creators are attracted to campaigns on services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to find out if anyone would buy their intellectual or creative product before they invest the time and resources. As crowdfunding matures, expect to see more authors using it to help gauge interest in a project before they even put pen to paper.