urban fantasy

Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

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Re-reading the Dresden Files: Blood Rites

bloodritesMy reread of Blood Rites was somewhat disjointed. I started it on vacation by taking it off my family’s shelves, and then decided not to steal it (still proud of this), so there was a bit of a gap between me reading the first half and the second.

Oh, vampires. I still don’t like you. In a literary sense. You’re just boring, no matter what court you’re in. And while Grave Peril was mostly Red Court with some Black, here it’s mostly White Court with some Black. Presumably, if you want an all-Black Court book, read Dracula.

The overarching theme in Blood Rites is family. And not just the White Court family, although we do get to figure out the Thomas thing and some other stuff. I try to avoid spoilers, you see, though how I can possibly do that throughout the entire re-read is beyond me.

We finally get to meet Murphy’s clan and fill out more of her character sheet. The deeper I get into the Dresden Files, the more I love Murphy. Blood Rites is where we see Murphy outside work and interactions with Harry. She gets an extra layer of complexity as a character. While she is still dedicated to her work and is staunchly lawful good, she shows more of her emotional and vulnerable side. Murphy is also in the books to check Harry and tell him to drop his ‘old-fashioned with the ladies’ bit (which, honestly, seems kinda demeaning after being mentioned a few times).

But the best character in Blood Rites is… THE PUPPY. He is a ball of energy, fury, excitement, all at once. He could be just for comedy, but he is in almost every scene, and so it’s obvious that we are not going to be done with THE PUPPY after this book is over. Let’s call him the Chekhov’s puppy.

I’m moving on to Dead Beat and leaving you with Anton Chekhov, pictured here with his puppy:

chekhov

Re-reading the Dresden Files: Summer Knight and Death Masks

summerknightSummer Knight used to be my favorite early Dresden Files book. I think it’s useful to distinguish ‘early’ and ‘later’ Dresden books, because at one point they stop being great fun and become pure awesome. Summer Knight is not where it happens, but it is a very solid installment.

Taken together, Summer Knight and Death Masks are good examples of different story arcs in the series.  There is the fairies story arc (Summer Knight), and there’s the knights/demons arc (Death Masks). There is obviously also one for vampires (Grave Peril etc). My personal preference is for knights/demons and fairie courts. I’m less enthused about vampires, but I do like the fact that none of Butcher’s vampires sparkle (though the ones in the White Court acquire a sheen when they are about to feed).

deathmasksI finished Summer Knight and moved on right away to Death Masks only to realize that perhaps Death Masks is now my favorite early Dresden. It might be Shiro, or guys with swords in general. It might be that I’m more of a sucker for a ‘let’s find a priceless relic’ detective story than I used to be.

A note on the covers. Someone I know pointed out (correctly) that while Harry is pictured wearing a hat on all the covers, he never actually wears one in the books. My take is that the covers are designed to be very noir-ish, hence the addition of a hat. It’s supposed to make your detective look sharp and, for all we know, adds +3 to intelligence. To be honest, Harry is hardly ever a sharp dresser in the books (and, as my friend pointed out, also has an unfortunate predilection for sweatpants). It doesn’t really matter, to be honest. Hats are cool (sweatpants, less so).

For those of you joining me in the middle of the reread, here are the links to the previous volumes: Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril. Next up, Blood Rites and THE PUPPY.

Re-reading the Dresden Files: Grave Peril

graveperilIn my mind, Grave Peril is really the first Dresden book, with Storm Front and Fool Moon being prequels. The third volume continues the tradition of self-contained mystery, but it’s vastly improved by the fact that most participants get to go on and have major roles in rest of the series. Not only that, but consequential things happens to these participants.

What’s great about Grave Peril is that it starts so theatrically. Everyone is in costume, making a grand entrance. ‘My duster billowing out in a black cloud behind me, Michael’s white cloak spreading like the wings of the avenging angel whose namesake he was’. It’s so over the top.

graveperil1Let’s start with Michael. Michael is honest to god (or God) paladin. He is unbearably lawful good. If Harry has his temptations, Michael is so pure that in any other book, he would be a giant annoying pain in the ass. He does get judgmental (all this ‘living in sin’ business), but he a) at least practices what he preaches and b) not so blindly judgmental that it endangers others. He will come to your rescue even if you do live in sin.

And there’s quite a bit of rescue to be done in Grave Peril. Michael ends up stepping in with not just his sword, but supernatural knowledge and plain common sense (‘Harry, you are not the biggest kid on the block’). Once again, Harry is made vulnerable right when he needs his power most (‘it ate my magic?’), and yet still manages to pull through. It is, of course, a useful story tool to have your protagonist struggle. It would be a very boring series if Harry were just blasting through walls and bad guys in easy mode all the time. And yet he survives and wins by a hair so often, that you start to wonder how he survives at all. Perhaps these nigh-impossible escapes are what creates his image as a powerful wizard: ‘For a guy with two sticks and a pair of yellow ducky boxer shorts, you must think I’m a real danger’. Part of the fun of reading the Dresden Files is watching him get out of these seemingly impossible situations by either drawing on previously unnoticed resources or through help of friends like Michael (after all, every Slayer has some sort of Scooby gang).

Another cool thing about Grave Peril? Great amount of Bob.

And finally, my favorite scene, page 231. ‘Harry. Look at his cigarette.’

Re-reading the Dresden Files: Fool Moon

foolmoonOh, Fool Moon. I’ve read this book at least three times now, and every time I’m surprised I went on to the rest of the series. This is possibly my least favorite Harry book. Silly title, werewolves (I’m not into werewolves), not enough Mister. Okay, the last one is a very minor point.

There are still some redeeming things in this book. There are different groups of werewolves rather than just one ‘people turning into wolves’ crowd, and they don’t all get along, which makes things a bit more interesting. Plus, we meet Billy and Georgia. On the other hand, it creates some confusion (‘this is the guy that can turn into a wolf that way but not that other way, right?’), dragged out resolution, and too many people on the suspect list (see above, confusion).foolmoon1

Fool Moon is also where we start to see Harry develop further into the character that embodies the contradiction of being really badass (blasting werewolves through walls with fire) and really vulnerable (I’m pretty sure he spends at least 100 pages in a continuous state of being beat up and in pain). Interestingly enough, Fool Moon is also where a possibility of losing magical ability is mentioned (‘I had burnt out some internal circuitry’), which adds to Harry’s vulnerability.

Harry makes some enemies by being staunchly good and by not being afraid to tell mobsters and tough men that they are scum. His goodness also shines through when he is tempted by power. ‘Temptation of Harry’ is a strong theme that runs throughout the series, but its first real glimpse is here, in Fool Moon.

All these things make Fool Moon rather important for the development of the whole series. The Dresden Files is designed in such a way that you can’t really skip books. Yes, each book is a self-contained mystery, but there are little bits and pieces that come into play later. This, of course, is what makes the Dresden Files a feast of geekery. Really, even the weakest book is worth getting through in the end.

Re-reading the Dresden Files: Storm Front

Skin Game, the latest Harry Dresden book, is out, and is already getting incredibly good reviews (see here and here, for example). I really want to read it, but I have terrible memory for books and therefore lack sufficient lore knowledge to thoroughly enjoy the new volume. I have therefore started making my way through 14 previous Dresden books. This seems like a daunting task, but it’s really not: Dresden files are pure book candy and take only a few hours per book to read. I could have just looked through the Dresden Files wiki, but reading books is more fun.

And so I started with Storm Front, first published in 2000 with this cover:

stormfront1

Once the series became popular and famous, they handed the art off to Chris McGrath and reissued the first few installments with new covers:

stormfront

I’ll be honest, at some point in my SF reading career I got a bit tired of McGrath covers. Handsome humans walking or standing in Rembrandtesque light and shadow combinations, they all blurred into one image. That said, I still think McGrath is the perfect artist for Harry covers.* His Harry is, well, Harry. That’s the Harry in my head.

Storm Front is generally considered to be a fairly weak book. It was Butcher’s first attempt at the urban fantasy/noir mix. Every time someone recommends the Dresden Files, they inevitably have to say that the series gets better. It does indeed. In fact, I think at one point Butcher sells his soul to the fairie queen in exchange for some mad skills.

I finished Storm Front during my Saturday ‘Running With Books’ session, and I have to say it was better than I had expected it to be. Maybe my previous experience with the series influenced my reading. Maybe this whole business of ‘weak first book’ was too ingrained in my mind. It is definitely not as good as some later installments, but it does a good job at introducing us to Harry and at making us want to read more books with Harry as a main character. If there is such a thing as a literary crush, I have one on Harry Dresden. Too bad he is straight.**

Storm Front also sets some pieces in place for later books. We meet Morgan and find out about White Council. There are also some bits about Harry’s mother, his magical training, and his first love, that become very important later. In short, a lot of the scenery is a setup for later use, including characters involved in the main story (such as Johnny Marcone).

I was not awed by Storm Front, but reading it now reminded me why I continued reading the series many years ago.

On to Fool Moon.

 

* Also, putting ‘マトリックス’ (‘Matrix’ in Japanese) on the staff is a nice hilarious touch, and it is even mirrored like in the Matrix code.

** And also fictional. Sigh.

Book review: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Published: August 2012

Where I got it: I received a galley from Angry Robot through netgalley.com.

It is my personal opinion that 99% of urban fantasy is utter crap. Perhaps it is because so many people write in this genre, but it just tends to have a much higher percentage of badly-written, badly-executed novels.

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig is not one of those. It almost made me late for work. It almost made me miss my bus. It sucks you in (and no, it’s not a pun, there are no vampires in it, which is perhaps another point in its favor) and does not let go. It is fast-paced and engrossing. It is pretty much everything I look for in a good urban fantasy book.

I have to say that I had not read Blackbirds, which is a the first book in this series. In fact, I didn’t realize there was a prequel when I requested a galley. It didn’t seem to matter in general. There are some flashbacks in Mockingbird that fill in the blanks quite nicely. But it did make me want to read Blackbirds just to add that extra bit of backstory and depth to the characters.

In short: Miriam Black has a curse — when she touches you, she can see how you die. In complete, movie-in-your-head, graphic detail. Add to this some seriously rough shit in her life, and you have somebody very flawed and very disturbed. Miriam is not a nice girl. She has a dirty mouth and an attitude. She will call a spade a fucking spade. And yet there is more to her than just a sharp tongue and irreverence. She tries to use her curse to save some people, to prevent the horrors seen in her visions.

Mockingbird is a veritable parade of ‘damaged and weak’ people. Everyone in it has been screwed over by life and circumstances, but the difference lies in what kind of lemonade they make with their lemons. What kind of person you become and whether your fate is written in stone are in fact the main themes of Mockingbird (yes, I am talking about themes in my review of a genre book — take that, New York Times).

The book is dark. Terrible things happen to people in it. There are gory bits. Some scenes might haunt you. And that’s another great point in favor of Mockingbird — it does stay with you for a while after you reach the last page. You have been warned.

Mockingbird hits the shelf in a couple of weeks. I give it 5 out 5 blackbirds.