There are a whole bunch of cliches about urban fantasy. About ‘strong’ female protagonists with the ability to kick demon butt and a taste for form-fitting black leather, tattoos, piercings and edgy haircuts. About irresistibly sexy Fae creatures that capture the hearts of said strong female protagonists, often after stories involving love triangles. And plots centring on conspiracies, world-threatening catastrophe and hidden pasts. So much so that when I picked up Amanda Hocking‘s Between the Blade and the Heart (review copy from Pan Macmillan) I took it for parody to begin with. But apparently it’s meant to be serious, and Hocking’s popularity suggests her writing is the source for a lot of these tropes and cliches.
This was a book I didn’t finish. There are holes in the plot and the world-building you could drive the main character Malin’s luft-bike through. And the prose was so eye-rollingly facile and over-sexualised that I struggled. This is pure chick-lit – romance with the slight gloss of a supernatural mystery to solve as Malin gets involved in correcting a mistake her mother once made that arguably puts the world at risk. It aspires to being ‘edgy’ with Malin’s bisexuality, strained relationship with her mother, references to drink and drugs, and her status as a professional slayer of immortals, but this is as derivative a work of fiction as they come.
The characters are unlikeable stereotypes, yet with Hocking making a point of telling us exactly how attractive they all are. Malin is a standard issue strong-female-protagonist, who aspires to being a rebellious outsider (by not taking her college classes seriously, by ignoring instructions and advice, and partying hard). Her flatmate Oona is a put-upon doormat. And there is a classic Mean Girl at college, who is no doubt destined to become Malin’s BFF. Add to that mix a Sexy Ex, a hot Friend With Benefits, and a Sexy Yet Mysterious Stranger and I noped my way out fast.
Hocking’s popularity and sales suggest she has a devoted readership and following of fans. I am glad they are reading work they enjoy. But this is not my cup of tea. I prefer books with a bit more substance.
Goodreads rating: 1*
I loved Paul Crilley‘s Poison City last year. Its irreverent take on the supernatural police procedural was a breath of fresh air. Crilley has followed it up with Clockwork City (review copy from Hodderscape), a direct sequel picking up on Gideon ‘London’ Tau’s work with the Delphic Division and his search for his missing daughter.
One of the strengths of Poison City was its South African setting, and the wide range of gods, monsters and orisha that setting enables Crilley to draw on for the book. That felt fresh and new compared to the run of urban fantasy and supernatural police procedural clogging the shelves. So setting Clockwork City in London was a bold move. I’m not sure it completely works, as it loses the USP of these books.
Dealing with the aftermath of the events of Poison City, Tau finds himself sent to London to investigate the disappearance of two Delphic Division agents. But this is a London full of Fae, walking brazenly and openly through the streets. Four competing Fae gangs between them control London and its organised crime, but the Blessed are seeking to take over. And they seem to have some connection with the disappearance of Tau’s daughter.
Clockwork City is a proper romp of a crime thriller, as Tau and his foul-mouthed dog spirit guide continue to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of Tau’s daughter. It’s an adventure that takes them to the heart of ancient London and the alternate world of the Fae. There’s a host of new characters and a glorious heist that is the supernatural equivalent of Ocean’s 11. This is fantastic fun, and a worthy sequel, even if not – quite – on a par with the first book.
Goodreads rating: 4*
Daniel Polansky‘s A City Dreaming (review copy from Hodderscape) is a love song to New York, in all its strange beauty. It’s a braided narrative, each chapter a short story in itself. Stories of parties, conflicts, love and romance, creativity and adventure, full of warmth and intimate detail. Together they combine to make a portrait of the city, building to a powerful climax where the city’s magical citizens are required to tackle a threat to the city.
A City Dreaming follows a man known only as M. A perpetual outsider, he drifts through life, living on luck and moving through the city, briefly connecting with New Yorkers from the glitziest elite down to the poorest and those living on the fringes of society. The difference is that M’s circle includes supernatural beings at all levels. M himself has an unspecified level of magical power and it is implied that he could be one of the powerful if he only chose to exercise it. M is someone who holds the balance of the city, existing between its rival queens, neither of whom he will pledge himself to. He moves within and between worlds, weaving the whole together
A City Dreaming is a strange and slippery book. For all that it deals with an alternate, parallel New York of supernatural beings, it feels like an authentic portrait of a complex, vibrant and interconnected city.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Cross Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels with Lauren Beukes and add a hefty dose from an episode of Life on Mars and you have Poison City, Paul Crilley‘s first novel for adults (review copy from publishers Hodderscape). This is a supernatural thriller set in South Africa. It lacks the polite Englishness of the Folly, and is the better for it.
Gideon Tau (known almost universally as London) is a detective in South Africa’s Delphic Division, the branch of the police that deals with supernatural related crime. Like all of Delphic Division, Tau is a magic practitioner, teamed up with a spirit guide. In his case, a foul-mouthed, perpetually drunk dog. Tau also has personal tragedy shading his past. His daughter disappeared, believed murdered, several years previously, which led to the break up of his marriage. That murder remains unsolved and Tau investigates it on the side. Poison City opens with the murder of a low-ranking vampire, which Tau and his boss Armitage start to investigate. Almost inevitably, the perpetrator was seen at the scene of the disappearance of Tau’s daughter and the investigation starts to uncover deep corruption at the heart of South African society.
Crilley draws on a rich seam of African religions, mythology and history to populate his contemporary South Africa. This moves it far beyond the rather tired elves, vampires and werewolves of most urban fantasy, giving Poison City a real richness and vibrancy that other similar works lack. The themes of corruption within the ruling classes, misuse and exploitation of power, and issues of personal responsibility have a real relevance to contemporary South Africa. Sin eaters play a huge part in the book: individuals who will – for a price – take on the burden of another person’s actions. This creates a group of people willing to transgress knowing they will carry no responsibility or memory of that act.
The characterisation is particularly strong. Tau convinces as a man wrestling with the loss of a beloved child and the break up of his marriage. He is increasingly alienated from society and his jaded attitude drives many of his actions. His boss Armitage is a refreshingly no-nonsense female cop who is clearly highly competent.
Poison City is a polished, slick thriller that delivers some genuine shocks and chills, as well as offering some thoughtful reflections on the society in which it’s set. It’s the first in a series, and I can’t wait for the sequels.
Goodreads rating: 4*
Chasing Embers by James Bennett (review copy from publishers Orbit, via NetGalley) is the first in a new series of urban fantasy novels about muscle-for-hire Ben Garston. Ben is not your typical mercenary, though. He’s the last remaining dragon in the world. After ruinous wars, King John signed a Covenant that led to the fae and all supernatural beings withdrawing from the world, except for one of each species.
For the most part, Ben leads a pretty quiet life, doing the occasional job of work without asking too many questions about it, until the peace of the Covenant is shattered. There appears to be another dragon on the loose, stealing items from museums, which means Ben’s enemies have free rein to try to act on centuries-old feuds. Ben’s attempts to unravel the mystery lead him to Africa and an ancient goddess, and jeopardise the safety of his (ex-)girlfriend and, inevitably, the world.
I have to say I was underwhelmed by this book, and it was a bit of a plod to get through. Ben crashes pretty unthinkingly through life, which makes him hard to make a connection with and has the plot reeling from one fight scene or confrontation to another. There is also far too much reliance on the Deus Ex Machina of the one remaining Fae (who lives as a gloriously seedy nightclub owner in Germany) arriving to save the day and get the author out of a plot hole or comer he has backed himself into. And I was left slightly disturbed by the frequent resort to torture and Ben’s sexual attraction to the African goddess, who is embodied in the novel through and around a prepubescent girl.
Bennett tries to do some interesting things with Ben’s relationship with love-interest Rose, playing on dragon-tropes. Rose is presented as alternately a treasure he is seeking to add to his hoard, or a princess he is seeking to protect. She, by all accounts, is happy with neither role, nor with his inability to admit who and what he really is. But despite a few spirited attempts to rebel, Rose fails to pass the Sexy Lamp Test (could you replace the lead female character with a particularly attractive lamp, without making any difference to the plot of the story?) and becomes merely a plot device to get Ben to the scene of the novel’s climax.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Angela Slatter‘s Vigil (review copy provided by publishers Jo Fletcher) is a glorious mash up of urban fantasy and crime thriller. Set in contemporary Brisbane, it follows Verity Fassbinder as she solves a series of gruesome murders. So far, so Sarah Lund. But Verity Fassbinder is super-strong and half-Weyrd, and those being murdered are winged Sirens.
Verity works for the ruling council of the Weyrd, Slatter’s faerie community in Brisbane. She’s been hired by her Weyrd ex-boyfriend Bela (a nickname, because of his resemblance to classic horror actor Bela Lugosi). Her half-human, half-Weyrd heritage enables her to move freely between both societies, though like all who live between, she struggles for acceptance in either world. In her case, it’s not helped by her Weyrd father being a famous criminal.
As Verity’s investigation progresses, it begins to reveals corruption at the heart of Weyrd society. Positions of power and privilege are abused by a wealthy Weyrd elite who are struggling to integrate with the ‘real’ world and want to cling on to the old ways. Along the way Verity is also forced to confront some of her own dark personal history.
Vigil is slick, polished and fun. I will certainly be interested to see what Verity gets up to next.
Goodreads rating: 3*