Friday, 7 November 2014

I’ve worked with horrors before but I guess never quite so literally as the protagonist in Mur Lafferty’s the Shambling Guide to New York.

I don’t want to be mean. I really don’t. I mean it happens, but it’s not like I intentionally set out to be negative. Sometimes people just bring it out of you, like metaphorical Pandoras obliviously opening the box of your cinder-spitting rage despite your desperate attempts to keep the lid nice and shut.

In this case, today’s Pandora happens to be a book.

Zöe (whose name comes with an infuriating and largely unnecessary umlaut – yes, I’m aware that people really do have umlauts in their names, but something about this book just sets me off on a nit picking spree) has moved back to New York after terminating a disastrous affair with her apparently married boss. In her search for a job, she stumbles across an ad looking for a travel guide managing editor, which (VERY conveniently) is exactly what she’s trained for.

Except nothing ever trained her for a publishing house run by a vampire who employs a water sprite, a death goddess, a bunch of zombies, and an incubus in the workplace. 

Neither does it make much sense that Big Boss Phil would hire a human to write a city guide for the supernatural when said human doesn’t even know that all the things that go bump in the night are actually real. But WHO NEEDS LOGIC, HERE HAVE A SEXY SEMI-RAPEY INCUBUS AND A MYSTERIOUS NEIGHBOR WHOSE HOTNESS PRECLUDES THE NEED FOR A PERSONALITY. (Phew, crisis averted.)

Luckily, Zöe is the kind of heroine who easily adapts to everything without batting an eyelash. Vampires, witches, and all that other junk just happen to be real? No biggie. The city’s Public works department turns out to be the human policing organization for supernatural forces, and her sexy neighbor just happens to be one of them? Gee, that makes perfect sense, I don’t know why she never put the pieces together. Zoe suddenly developing a secret power that can communicate with the very spirit of life? Well that’s just to be expected.

Because she’s just That Cool, guys. 

It was only through considerable effort and sheer force of willpower that I finished The Shambling Guide to New York, because honestly, Zöe, around whom all the events in this book inexplicably revolve, is not really all that interesting. 

Who even is she, as a character with a personality? What does she do with her free time, aside from knocking boots with her ex-boss? Why did she even like the guy in the first place, because he seems to have as such charm as she does (read: none at all, so on that note, why did he like her back?)? If she’s a New York native, why does she seem to be so completely alone with no friends and family who ever visit? All of this is a mystery that never intrigues you enough to try to solve it. Either Zöe is a lonely, orphaned hermit with no family or interests to speak of, or Lafferty was just like, “She slept with her boss and regrets it! That’s all the character detail I’ll need! Now to spell out whole chapters about sexy incubi being sexxy! With two x’s, for emphasis!”

I did appreciate the snippets of the actual Shambling Guide to New York, but the charm of them was overwhelmed by the blandness of everything else.

Adding to this the fact that she (spoilers! Who cares!) turns out to be capable of spiritually communicating with the city because she is SECRETLY MAGICAL TOO, this all really just comes off as a second-rate attempt to imitate Kate Griffin's own brand of inventive urban magic. I understand that The Shambling Guides are published by the same company (Orbit) that released Kate Griffin's splendid Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous series (which all of you should give a shot), but in the wake of those excellent books, Mur Lafferty's world and writing comes off as embarrassingly mediocre.

The book did pick up when the antagonist, whose own character development was too shallow to drown a legless beetle in, turned an airport into a massive golem. Because that’s a thing I would definitely like to see. However, it’s a classic case of too little, too late, and not nearly enough on the way to make the ride worth it. 

See, the whole concept this book is based on should be interesting—I love the idea that all these mythical beings also have to pay taxes and take out the trash in their shitty neighborhoods. But Lafferty falls flat in the execution—there’s something almost tentative in the way she writes it. Her caution in straddling the line between wacky coterie shenanigans and supernatural urban mystery resulted in a half-baked pastiche of what should have been a lively and colorful novel, as promised by the cover of her book. When two of her coworkers die, everyone moves on pretty quickly—I mean, yes, they were zombies so they were already basically dead, but everyone was pretty callous about losing two of their friends and forget all about it the next day. Despite being a mix of vampire, sprite, death goddess, and human, Lafferty’s characters should still behave like people. 

In a sense, she does succeed in one thing—this book has just about as much personality and depth as an actual travel guide. So, good job Ms. Lafferty.


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