Just sloughed through the most recent pile of urban fantasy. It’s not so much bad as it is uninspired. There are a lot of white women, with sardonic, oddly perky tones engaged in extreme displays of femininity. Buffy’s shadow looms large in the genre, so it’s like every vampire slayer/vampiress/heiress with an attitude is deeply concerned about both saving the world AND her Jimmy Choo’s. I’m not trying to hate on girliness. I’m hating on cookie-cutter writing, heteronormativity, and whiteness because GOD isn’t this boring?
The below contains some major spoilers for each book. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
1. Bite Me! – Melissa Francis
Okay, it’s a mildly interesting premise. High school junior AJ is a vampire. Her mom, also a vampire, is getting married… to AJ’s boyfriend’s dad. Cue the Brady Bunch jokes. Anyways, AJ might’ve killed a classmate who was getting fresh (IE TRYING TO RAPE HER CAN WE RETURN TO THAT AS A PLOTPOINT?) and now he might’ve returned from the dead to stalk her as his maker. Good stuff.
AJ’s a funny, snarky girl. She’s a bit of a wise-ass, she’s a bit of a ditz, and the incorporations of modern life (like Facebook references) don’t feel forced. The dialogue is a little Juno-esque (AJ’s classmates mock her by calling her “Peppermint Perfect”), but that’s all right since it fits the tone. If it was the only one like it in the genre, I’d probably read it and like it, even as the sexual assault aspect irritated the shit out me.
Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good; elision of deeply important issues related to sex; female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues.
Splashes of originality: Some references to premarital sex; some emphasis on female friendship and academics; passes Bechdel test.
2. The Demon King and I — Candace Heavens
Gillian Caruthers is the muscle in quartet of heiresses whose secret duty is to defend our universe. They are the Guardian Keys, and basically they are wealthy, gorgeous, smart, and fierce. They also have star tattoos signifying their power, so it’s kinda like Sailor Moon had babies with Gossip Girl. Their nanny is probably Vogue, because honestly these women are like paperdoll heiress superheroes. Don’t you want to know more about their clothes??? Anyways, Gillian is the “Hercugirl” of the bunch. She’s all bad-ass and strong and specifically fights demons. She has visions of death, and now they’re coming true. She ends up forming an allegiance with a cutie-pie of a demon king, who it turns out is actually half-human and with him she plans on taking on a multiverse. YAY POLITICAL AND ROMANTIC ALLEGIANCES! I like it when my love-life is secretly part of my multi-tasking.
Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good; female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues. In fact, the girly-cues might be the damn point, what with the fetishization of their clothing, accessories, and the kind of body maintenance that rich women can afford… like having a martial arts master LIVE WITH YOU so you can train whenever you feel like.
Splashes of originality: Arath fingers her and there’s specific mention of the clit; somewhat realistic sibling relations; passes Bechdel test.
3. Doppelgangster — Laura Resnick
Another I really wanted to like. Esther Diamond is a struggling actress in NYC who witnesses a murder-by-curse of a prominent gangster. She calls on her friends Max the Magician, Nelli the familiar, and a host of other colorful characters to KICK. SOME. MAGIC. ASS. Along the way, they negotiate a semi-truce between two rival Mafia gangs, and Esther keeps almost hooking up with her hottie jalopy of a mixed-race boyfriend, Connor Lopez, who might be secretly magical but doesn’t know. Esther spends a huge chunk of the book worrying about her acting career, her appearance in the tabloids, and whether or not her and Connor will get to do it any time soon.
Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good; female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues. The girly-cues here are both part of Esther’s character and her job, so she’s not only obsessing over her clothes for dates, but also her clothes for interviews… so at one point she’s really stressing out over what kind of impression she made on a casting director that she got offered the part of a bisexual drug user or whatever. One of the things that’s mildly surprising about this I’M INTO CLOTHES/SHOES/WHATEVER is how much work in text the author does to rationalize it, like how in the Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead series there’s a lampshade on how much Betsy likes shoes and how she’s got to hustle to afford designer ones. I think that hustling, though, is part of why Betsy “works” and Gilly Caruthers from The Demon King and I doesn’t — Betsy’s labor is part of the world-building, where she’s a character with a passion for fashion that’s defined by who she is, not a character defined by what she owns/has access to/does. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it’s one of the reasons Betsy and the quirks of her world feel so much more real to me, whereas with Esther and Gilly I felt like I was reading a parody of a parody of a parody. Very post-modern, but really unsatisfying.
Splashes of originality: Esther’s Jewish, which was refreshing, and it’s mentioned several times without being heavy-handed, which was more so. Resnick draws on several Mafia flick genre conventions (like the outrageously bereaved widow and the conniving priest) in genuinely humorous fashion. Esther’s clear that her body is her meal ticket, so there’s none of that OMG I’M ACCIDENTALLY A FUCKING HOTTIE I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT HAPPENED that can be so annoying in fanfic.
4. You Are So Undead to Me — Stacey Jay
Megan Berry’s a Settler, meaning she calms the spirits of the undead, meaning she talks to zombies. Neat! Unfortunately, she spends the majority of this book sniping at every girl her age, except her BFF Jess, who turns out to be a black-magic-using lesbian witch. At times, I felt like this text was specifically misogynistic, with Megan’s self-absorption played for unsympathetic laughs. For example, there’s a moment in-text where she’s describing Jess’ grief over the death of Jess’ mother four years ago, and says that afterwards Jess was really messed up, to the point that she got upset watching Dumbo, which Megan expresses astonishment at, since Dumbo doesn’t involve people. Teenagers aren’t emotionally illiterate, and while that might have been meant to be funny, it really highlighted to me that the author either doesn’t know or doesn’t like teenage girls. Plus, if Megan and Jess became BFF four years before the start of the novel, when they were 11, weren’t they both a little old for Dumbo? Like, how did that even come up? What especially sucks is that this is such a randomly homophobic and misogynistic text that I don’t really feel comfortable donating it to a local school, which is normally what I do with books I review for Hathor. Gah.
Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good; female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues. BONUS ROUND: Megan’s mysteriously clumsy, except when she’s unusually graceful, a la Bella from Twilight.
Splashes of originality: Uh. This is a toughie. Uh. Megan and Jess are both really into hip-hop and jazz and are both dancers. Megan refers to her hobby several times, and practices it in text, unlike Isabella Kopas in Chill. I was a little weirded out that the only technical terms Megan uses were from ballet, like pas de bouree and grande jete, which I don’t think was actually the move she meant there, but hey, I take what I can get.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve been working on this post a while. As I’ve been writing it I’ve been trying to think about how I define urban fantasy as a genre, because I REFUSE to believe that the above genre conventions define it, even though they are so common. So, what I’m gonna do now is highlight some awesome urban fantasy, so you can get a sense of what I’m looking for when I want my shit to be exciting.
1. The Turning Book 1: What Curiosity Kills – Helen Ellis
I just want to throw out there that this book is set in a private school in NYC, and that its two main female characters are survivors of the US foster care system, and are acutely aware that the parents they have now are basically the result of them having hit the foster care jack pot. And! These two sisters are survivors. Our main girl, comes, I think, from Appalachia, and regularly gets teased for having been poor white trash. The other, her foster sister, is BLACK, and also came from a poor, RURAL background. Both have experience with neglect and their time in the foster care system have deeply changed them. When our main girl starts turning into a goddamn cat in her spare time, her SISTER (not her boyfriend, not some hottie she’s got a crush on, not a vampire with a conscience) gets it together enough to help her. Sororal loyalty FOR THE WIN! I can’t believe that a good, healthy, supportive FEMALE sibling relationship is so rare in fantasy that I practically wanted to cheer when I realized that Mary (the white sister who’s turning into a cat) was looking to Octavia (her black sister) to help her research that shit. PLUS, when it turned out that Octavia was gonna fucking figure that shit out? Without any fake “oh, she’s gonna betray you because the possibility of betrayal is a constant in female relationships?” I immediately began trying to think of what kids I knew would dig this. I mean, yes, there’s a love interest or whatever, but he’s so not the point. Mary, Octavia, and Octavia getting it together to help her sister? That’s the point. Love it.
2. Kaimira: The Sky Village — Monk and Nigel Ashland
Basically, this book takes place in TWO cities (globalization FTW!). One’s a floating sky village in China, whose citizens have formed strategic allegiances with birds for their own survival. The other’s Las Vegas… AFTER the desert’s reclaimed the city. Years ago, there was a war — animals and mecha (intelligent machines) decided they were DONE with humanity and also with each other. It became dangerous to live on the surface (hence the sky village) and it became dangerous to use machines (hence the decline and fall of the US). The war’s not over yet, but it’s mostly stabilized. You still have to be afraid of roving packs of mecha or animals, but at the same time, the force driving the rage of both groups seems to be dissipating.
But, the record is not over yet. There are these books linking Las Vegas and the sky village — they respond to the hands of Mei, a girl with mysterious ancestry, and Rom, a boy in the same boat. Using these books, they can read each other’s stories and talk to each other… but it gradually becomes clear that there’s another intelligence inside the books that wants to get free. While the writing style is more suited to a young, advanced reader versus someone who’s a bit older, I gotta say that it’s been a while since I’ve read such an intriguing premise for a three-part war.
3. The Unicorn Sonata — Peter S. Beagle
Josephine “Joey” Rivera is a musical prodigy. She’s 13, lives in LA, and follows an intriguing strand of music across the border between our world and Shei’rah, where the Old Ones, unicorns, play music that defines and sustains this fantastical realm. Only something is starting to blind them. Joey’s soon caught in a race against time — she’s trying to preserve the unicorn’s music as well as figure out a way to save her grandmother from a lonely death.
This, and the Kaimira series are true YA/youth fiction novels. They’re simply told, tightly written, and feel like tools meant to help a younger reader grow up, since the lessons they deliver about love, family, trust, and loneliness are the kind of harsh eventualities you learn as you age. That’s not to say they’re not good books – Bridge to Terabithia, for example, is painfully beautiful, and Unicorn Sonata follows that tradition. It does mean, however, that I got something really different from Bridge when I read it was a tween than I do reading Kaimira and Unicorn Sonata now.
4. Prospero in Hell – L. Jagi Lamplighter
Y’all remember how much I loved the first book in this series, right? This second book is even better. Basically, Miranda (who’s the daughter of the magician Prospero) is starting to realize that several mysteries about the world IN GENERAL are coming together in her journey to save her father, not the least of which is how she can ever hope to become a Sibyl (the next rank in devotion to her goddess). After all, she’s worshipping the personification of freedom, and has basically enslaved the spirits of the air. Plus, dude, what happens to tithed elves??? The quirks of this world are delightful, but even more satisfying is Miranda’s role of as the head of a multi-national and multi-world business superpower. Prospero, Inc. might have been NAMED after her father, but it’s Miranda who runs and defines the company… and she actually refers to doing so, unlike those heiress fantasy books where there’s a lot of talk about being a great ruler or managing a company, but no mention of actually doing so. Plus, this highlights one of the core differences between Miranda and her feckless sibs — she’s the kind of person you can trust to defend the world. They’re not. They resent her, they love her, and they hate her for being the one person who can maintain their lifestyle. After all, Miranda might be a goody-two-shoes, daddy’s favorite, and the purest of the pure, but if she ever fell from that exacting definition of goodness, she would no longer be able to journey the year and a day necessary to get the Water of Life they need for many of their supernatural transactions and on which they depend for their immortality.
What I love about Lamplighter as a writer is that unlike, say, Laurell K. Hamilton, Lamplighter is mean as shit to her characters. In Prospero in Hell, everything Miranda has held dear for centuries gets assaulted. The elf-lord she might love turns out to be demonic. She realizes she’s been mis-remembering the face of the one man she ever truly loved and who left her at the altar. Her father might have been trucking with devils. Her beloved younger brother Mephistopheles most certainly is. Then, on top of all this? She’s raped, and the silent constancy of her one-horned goddess abandons her. What I love about this sequence is that Lamplighter has consistently emphasized that Miranda is an awesome, but unreliable narrator. At this moment in text? I’m like, “Miranda, sweetheart, Eurynome has CLEARLY NOT ABANDONED YOU. You’re still doing handmaiden magical shit and she’s clearly still with you! She’s just waiting for you to forgive YOURSELF, so that she can be your unicorn goddess again. Your “purity” had more to do with your heart and will then with your hymen.” I love this so hard. It’s such a hard knot of reality in such a fantastical world.
Now, go forth, my minions! Read good books, then tell me about them, so that I may make my “fun” reading list for the next few months based on your suggestions.