Urban Fantasy

“The Dirty Streets of Heaven” by Tad Williams

I received a review copy of Tad Williams’ “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” while I was at BEA in exchange for an honest review.  I’m also reading it as part of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event.

“The Dirty Streets of Heaven” is the first book  in a new urban fantasy series that combines elements of gritty noir with the supernatural.  Bobby Dollar is an angel known as an Advocate, which is the heavenly version of a lawyer.  When people die, an angel and a demon present arguments before a judge as to whether that soul should go to Heaven or to Hell.  Bobby argues for souls in the general region of San Judas, California.  However, one day souls begin disappearing before the process can take place, and when Bobby Dollar begins to investigate, he finds himself caught up in a plot that’s way over his head.

Bobby Dollar’s character makes this novel work.  He’s funny, he’s sarcastic, he’s sometimes an ass, and above all, he seems entirely human.  He likes to drink, he hangs out at the pub with his friends, and he sometimes sleeps with somebody and regrets it in the morning.  It’s not what you’d expect from an angel, but Tad Williams pulls it off incredibly well and uses it to reinforce the atmosphere that the book creates.

The minor characters are equally as vibrant.  There’s Casimira, the Countess of Cold Hands, a goth demon chick that Bobby Dollar finds irresistible, despite (or perhaps even because of) the fact that they’re working for different sides in a struggle that’s remarkably similar to the Cold War.  There’s Clarence, the rookie, who is a new Advocate who’s been sent down from the records department despite having no formal training.  Then there’s Sam, Bobby’s old war buddy turned drinking buddy, and Monica, Bobby’s ex, and the unresolved feelings between the two of them.  I appreciated the way that Tad Williams was able to give his characters believable and realistic social circles, and the characters remind you of somebody that you’d know and that you’d like to hang out with.

Despite Tad William’s excellent writing and vibrant characters, the story still lacks a certain spark of originality.  The characterization and the details are wonderful, but the whole angels and demons arguing over souls thing sounds a bit like a made for TV movie.  Mind you, I still enjoyed it, but I did wish that there would have been a bit more of a twist or a departure from tradition.

If the idea of Law & Order with angels and demons sounds interesting to you, then you’ll probably enjoy this one.

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Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“The Iron Witch” by Karen Mahoney

I received a review copy of Karen Mahoney’s “The Iron Witch” while I was at BEA earlier this summer.  The cover looked intriguing, and a  book about alchemists, fae, and angry wood elves seemed like it could be a lot of fun.

Donna Underwood is a home-schooled senior in high school.  Her father died protecting her from a magical attack when she was a kid, and her mother went crazy around the same time.  Donna’s hands were wounded in the attack, but an alchemist named Maker was able to repair them, leaving her hands marked with iron and silver tattoos.

Everyone in the Order assumes that Donna’s going to grow up to be a great alchemist, but mostly she just wants to be a normal teenager.  She’s had problems with bullies, and spends most of her time with her best friend, Navin.  Navin drags her to a party, and she meets Xan, and for the first time thinks she’s met someone who who might understand her secrets.

When Navin is kidnapped by wood elves, Donna and Xan must work together to save him.  Meanwhile, Donna begins to suspect that not everyone in the Order can be trusted.

I had high hopes for this book, because fairies are pretty damn cool.  Unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me.

If my hands were covered with a trippy swirly latticework of iron and silver, I’d think they looked badass and beautiful.  I wouldn’t cover them up with arm-length velvet gloves.  Especially if they also confer super-human strength.  Donna acts as if her arms were scarred and burned, not as if she’s got special awesome alchemical tattoos.  The way she hides and gets defensive about her arms makes no sense, and it bothered me.

The book also has a lot of awkward teenage drama.  Donna friendzoned Navin, Navin’s got a secret crush on Donna, she hides her relationship with Xan from Navin because …why?  It’s not like she wants to date him, but the way she dances around telling him about Xan makes me feel like she’s deliberately leading him on, even though I don’t think that she is.  I could still forgive this if I wasn’t so annoyed with Donna acting all weird about her arms, which makes me predisposed to question her judgement about everything else.

Aside from that, I actually do like the premise.  A secret order of alchemists fighting wood elves from a parallel world?  The iron of the city as the only thing keeping the magical folks at bay?  Iron tattoos that burn through magical villains?  Um, yes please.  More of that.

I also liked the way that the story was told in third person but with interjections of Donna’s own voice through journal entries.  It was a good way of tying up loose ends throughout the course of the book, and as a device it worked rather well.

“The Iron Witch” is the first book in a trilogy, but I don’t think that I’ll be reading the others.  The writing itself was decent, but between the cliched romance and Donna’s irrationality about her tattoos, I left the book feeling underwhelmed.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

During the past month I’ve been participating in a groupread of “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman.  This is a brief spoiler-free review for those of you who are curious about the book and haven’t read it.  For a more in-depth discussion, see:

“Neverwhere” is an urban fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman.  It tells the story of Richard, an average man in a dysfunctional relationship with his overbearing girlfriend.  One day, Richard stumbles upon a bleeding girl lying upon a sidewalk.  His decision to help her is life changing, as he finds himself sucked into the nightmarish wonderland of London Below.  London Below is inhabited by those individuals who fell through the cracks of society (and reality itself), and once Richard begins to see its denizens, he becomes invisible to people in the world above.  He follows the girl whom he rescued, whose name is Door, in the hopes of finding his way home, only to discover that Door’s life is threatened by the same people who murdered her family.

…and the villains!  Croup and Vandemar are a pair of bumbling but humorous mercenary bad guys who enjoy their job far too much.  You can’t hate them, because it’s very hard to take one’s villains seriously when they’re trying to talk with a mouth full of toads.

The atmosphere of London Below is one of the biggest strengths of this book.  Gaiman draws on both the mundane and the absurd to create a world that is simultaneously beautiful and menacing.

One of the weaknesses of “Neverwhere” is the general lack of character development throughout the novel.  Most of the characters don’t change, but Richard’s perspective on them does, so I’ll forgive it.  Most of the characters in London Below are unabashedly themselves.  Characters represent different archetypes and seem to have come out of a fairy tale, but one of the overreaching themes of the novel is that life isn’t always what it seems and that there is more to people than meets the eye.  The minor characters are extremely memorable, such as the Amazonian woman named Hunter who is searching for a fabled Beast or the Old Bailey who talks to birds and trades in favors.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this book.  It reminds me of a darker version of Alice in Wonderland, but in a more modern setting complete with subway rats, floating markets, and plenty of hidden dangers.  Even though the book has some flaws, the story is enjoyable and imaginative.

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I read this book as part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Neverwhere Readalong, Part II

Happy Memorial Day, and welcome to part two of the Neverwhere readalong.  This week’s discussion covers chapters 6 thru 12 of the novel.  I’m loving the book thus far; it’s got a perfect balance of darkness, magic, and humor.

I’m probably going to be a bit behind on visiting people’s blogs.  I’ll try to get to all of them today, but I’ve got a lot of catching up to do because I’ve been away from internet/cell phone service/etc. for the weekend.  I went camping with my family in Pennsylvania, which was both relaxing and exhausting.  I read a couple books while I was there, and I’ll be posting reviews of them over the next few days.

The following discussion will contain spoilers.  I’ll post a spoiler-free review of “Neverwhere” once I’ve finished reading it for anyone who isn’t following along.  For those of you who are, be sure to pop over to Carl’s blog to see the rest of the discussions.

Dear Diary, he began.  On Friday I had a job, a fiancee, a home, and a life that made sense.  (Well, as much as any life makes sense.)  Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a good Samaritan.  Now I’ve got no fiancee, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruitfly.

1.  Chapter 6 begins with Richard chanting the mantra, “I want to go home”.  How do you feel about Richard and his reactions at this point to the unexpected adventure he finds himself on?

I like seeing the way that begins to come into his own during this week’s chapters.  At first he’s not willing to believe that what’s  going on is real and keeps asking questions based on what he knows above.  He acts very sensibly and has no imagination.  As the story progresses, he begins to lose his inhibitions and begin to accept the nonsensical and wonderful world below that he’s slowly becoming a part of.  Seeing him pass the Ordeal of the Key seemed like a rite-of-passage that marked his full acceptance of London Below, and the Ordeal physically marks Richard’s realization that life isn’t as black-and-white as he thought it was.

2.  The Marquis de Carabas was even more mysterious and cagey during the first part of this week’s reading.  What were your reactions to him/thoughts about him as you followed his activities?

At first I thought that he might actually be the mystery employer.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him talk to Croup and Vandemar and realized that he was on Door’s side.  Pity about the crucifixion.  He seemed like an honorable chap, if nothing else.

3.  How did you feel about the Ordeal of the Key?

I touched on this a bit in my answer to the first question because I think that the Ordeal marks Richard’s acceptance of the topsy-turvy underworld.  If he’d have given in to the voices in his head that told him he was insane, it would have been a rejection of London Below.  Instead he affirms the potential to see the world in a different way, which is a potential that I think he’s had all along.

The ordeal itself was nightmarish, but Gaiman’s details here made it even more absurd.  I loved the part about the cup of tea.

4.  This section of the book is filled with moments.  Small, sometimes quite significant, moments that pass within a few pages but stick with you.  What are one or two of these that you haven’t discussed yet that stood out to you, or that you particularly enjoyed.

It’s things like seeing Old Bailey telling bad jokes to birds, or seeing Door and Richard awkwardly drunk off their asses on wine from Atlantis, or even Lady Serpentine’s breakfast that make “Neverwhere” so special.  Gaiman uses silly nonsensical details to create a world of wonder and intrigue.

5.  Any other things/ideas that you want to talk about from this section of the book?

Croup and Vandemar are such fantastic villains.  I still can’t hate them and find myself laughing at them every time I see them.  It’s hard to hate someone who chomps on Tang dynasty statues or tries to talk with a mouth full of frogs.  Croup and Vandemar are both dangerous and delightful, and I look forward to seeing more of their shenanigans.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , | 21 Comments

Neverwhere Readalong, Part I

I’ve been wanting to read one of Neil Gaiman’s novels ever since last year’s groupread of “Fragile Things.”  I had enjoyed the collection of short stories and looked forward to reading one of his longer books.  When Carl mentioned that he was hosting a groupread of “Neverwhere,” I immediately signed up.

This week’s reading covers chapters 1-5 of the book.  From this point onward, there may be spoilers.  After we’ve finished the book I’ll post a spoiler-free review for anyone who hasn’t read the book and isn’t following along.

1.  What do you think of our two villains thus far, Messrs. Croup and Vandemar?

They’re creepy and not-quite-human.  The scene with the darts and the random mice-eating makes me think that there’s more to them than meets the eye.  At the same time, I don’t have any real reason to dislike them, and it’s interesting to see them interact with each other.

2.  Thus far we’ve had a small taste of London Below and of the people who inhabit it.  What do you think of this world, this space that lies within or somewhat overlaps the space the “real world” occupies?

It’s delightful.  It’s got this whole Tim Burton style aura to it, and it seems so much more vibrant than the “real world” above.  I’m enjoying watching Richard keep underestimating it, beginning with the rats and pigeons and ending with Anasthesia’s demise.  This isn’t a happy-go-lucky Disney world, and there’s something very serious going on that Richard has inadvertently gotten caught up in.

3.  What ideas or themes are you seeing in these first 5 chapters of Neverwhere?  Are there any that you are particularly drawn to?

The recurring motif of doors stands out to me a lot.  I wonder if there are doors back into London Above that we don’t know about yet.  If there’s a way to get Below, then mightn’t there be a way back up?  I’m also curious about the political structure of London Below.  We’ve heard a bit about it, but we haven’t seen it in action yet.

4.  We’ve met a number of secondary characters in the novel, who has grabbed your attention and why?

Definitely Hunter.  She’s awesome.  I picture her almost like a female superhero; she may look a bit like a whore on first glance, but when trouble arises she can kick some serious bad guy butt.  I liked how she foiled Croup and Vandemar’s plans without anyone even knowing it.

5.  As you consider the Floating Market, what kind of things does your imagination conjure up? What would you hope to find, or what would you be looking for, at the Market?

Well, Gaiman did mention that they had books.  I’d imagine that the books in London Below contain all of the stories and ideas that authors thought up but never got the chance to write down.

6.  If you haven’t already answered it in the questions above, what are your overall impressions of the book to this point?

I’m loving it thus far.  At first I was a bit annoyed by Richard’s interactions with Jessica.  Seeing the two of them together made the book seem so serious.  I felt bad for Jessica at first, because it seemed like Richard didn’t really care about the reservations and wasn’t making any real effort to help her out.  As we saw a bit more of their interaction, I realized that she’s got a Type A personality and needs someone who can handle that.  Richard’s too laid back and has completely different priorities.  It’s one of those cases where the two of them just aren’t right for each other, and if Door hadn’t showed up then Richard and Jessica would have made each other miserable for the rest of their lives.  Once we stepped out of the relationship drama, I immediately was hooked.

When authors follow multiple characters’ point of view, I have a tendency to get attached to one character above all of the others.  In this book for me it’s Doors.  I want to learn more about who killed her family and about her place in the London Underground in general.

I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , | 40 Comments

“The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling

“When I was a boy, my mother used to tell me that at night the saguaro all dance together.  That’s why they look the way they do–with all their arms raised high.  They won’t move while you’re watching them, they wait until you fall asleep.  And then at dawn they all have to rush to get back into place again.  She used to say to me, ‘Close your eyes, mijo; the saguaro are waiting for you to sleep so they can run off to dance…'”

~”The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling

I chose “The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling as my first book for this year’s Once Upon a Time Challenge.  Carl recommended it to me during last year’s challenge, and I thought that it would be a fitting start.

The book tells the story of a writer named Maggie Black.  She has been corresponding with a poet named Davis Cooper for many years, and learns upon his death that she has inherited his house , despite having never physically met him.  She travels to the Arizona desert with the hope of writing his biography.  As she learns more about Cooper and his wife, the surrealist painter Anna Navera, she begins to realize that the strange mythological creatures depicted in their art and poetry are real.  Her search for answers regarding Cooper’s mysterious death leads her to discover a world much more complex than she had imagined.

Books like this one are quite special.  As an American, I often feel that our culture is devoid of legend and myth.  The closest thing we have are stories about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, but let’s face it, they’re kind of lame.  Windling’s mythic fiction combines Native American trickster stories with Celtic and Mexican influences in order to create a mythology with a distinctly North American feel.  I’m a big fan and would like to read more books like this one.

One of the things that I loved about this book were Windling’s descriptions of the desert.  I’ve never been to the desert, but I would like to live there one day.

Windling’s writing is lush and poetic.  I particularly liked how she headed each chapter with a segment from Cooper’s poems.  I feel as if I’m drawn to books about creative people.  The characters in “The Wood Wife” were well-drawn and believable while still retaining a unique feel.  I was amused by Maggie’s ongoing friendship with her ex-husband; it’s rare to see divorced couples in literature be able to be on speaking terms with each other.

Windling’s writing reminds me a bit of Charles de Lint’s stories, as both authors work from a similar concept.  Windling’s spirits feel a bit more sinister than de Lint’s, although in practice they both represent amoral creatures that don’t operate on the good vs. evil dichotomy.  “The Wood Wife” is an excellent choice for anyone interested in mythic fiction.

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This book also counts toward the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge hosted by Gathering Books, as the novel was the winner of the 1997 Mythopoeic Award for Best Novel.  I am also including it in the Speculative Fiction Challenge hosted by Baffled Books.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , | 28 Comments

“Spiritwalk” by Charles de Lint

“Spiritwalk” is the sequel to Moonheart, which I read a few months ago.  I waited to read it until reading “Moonheart,” but I think that it would have functioned adequately as a standalone.

Before I get to my actual review, I’d like to share the conversation between my boyfriend and I when the book came in the mail:

Mike:  You got another book in the mail. Why is there a furry on the cover?

Me:  It’s not a furry, it’s a coyote spirit!  It’s a shapechanger that lives in a parallel plane of existence!

Mike:  So it chooses to look like that?  Sounds like a furry to me.

So, to introduce this book, I will state very clearly that it is NOT about furries.  (For anyone reading this who does not know what a furry is, trust me, you’re better off not knowing.)

“Spiritwalk” is set in Ottawa at Tamson House, a haven for artists and other individuals who don’t quite fit in with normal society.  Most of the residents of Tamson House don’t know that it is also a gateway between various Otherworlds.  When a man attempts to harness the House’s power to achieve his own immortality, its residents are whisked away into a primeval forest to confront dangers unknown…

“Spiritwalk” has an interesting structure, as it is divided into parts which can each function as standalone stories.  The overall plot of the novel is a unification of each individual storyline, in which readers encounter  Merlin, mad witches, biker gangs, creepy owls, and ghostly computers.  Oh, and the coyote spirit who is totally not a furry.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys mythic urban fantasy.  I could say more about it, but it’s very similar to what I’ve said about Charles de Lint’s other novels–it features a blend of Celtic and Native American mythologies against the backdrop of a more modern setting, with the central message that everything isn’t quite as it seems and that there is magic and beauty in the world.

Categories: Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

“Moonheart” by Charles de Lint

And, yet again, I return to Charles de Lint.  “Moonheart” is a bit different from his other novels, though, in that it is set in Ottawa rather than Newford.  There’s still a neat blend of Celtic and Native American mythology, but there is oh so much more.

The story starts out when Sara Kendall, who runs a junk shop, finds a medicine pouch in an old box.  The pouch, among other things, contains a gold ring.  Yes, you can see where this is going.  The ring is magic.  Duh.  And of course there’s the inevitable facing-of-an-ancient-evil.  There’s also time travel, and the zombie apocalypse.  Well, not really the zombie apocalypse, but a bunch of main characters do get trapped in a mansion where they have to fend off monsters called the tragg’a, which I interpret as pretty much being a lot like zombies.  In addition to the time travel and zombies, there are shapeshifters, ancient bards, druids, and Mounties.

All in all, it makes an awesome fantasy novel.  Unlike a lot of fantasy authors, de Lint can actually write.  There are a lot of traditional fantasy elements, but they are portrayed in a unique way and reinterpreted to the present day.

Side note on the zombie apocalypse:  For some reason, pretty much every guy friend I have has a plan for the zombie apocalypse.  Some of the plans are quite well thought out.  However, it is sort of amusing that the CDC has a plan for the zombie apocalypse.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is your tax dollars at work.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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