Mur Lafferty has established herself as geek and podcaster and scribe and many people anticipated her first novel. In several places, she cites Douglas Adams as her influence, and some consider Shambling Guide a Hitchhiker’s Guide take on urban fantasy….
Title: The Shambling Guide to New York City
Author: Mur Lafferty
After her relationship with her supervisor turns sour, Zoë Norris moves to New York City and finds employment as the editor of a travel guide for monsters—or coterie, as they prefer to be called. This bizarre turn of events provides a very different look at the Big Apple, and soon lands her in some serious supernatural trouble.
The book features inventive and often witty views of the familiar. Lafferty re-envisions workplace dynamics through the presence of supernatural creatures, visiting territory Angel never fully explored. Like Douglas Adams, she drops numerous mind-warping concepts, which I suspect would be even more mind-warping to those who know NYC well. Landmarks serve unexpected purposes, sewer workers track supernatural forces, and zombies and vampires hide in plain sight. For all the novel’s humorous intentions, the absurd elements feel amusingly plausible….
…at least until we get to the final act, when events that could not be missed get rationalized, and people resume their mundane lives. If the novel were more satirically ridiculous, this would work. As it stands, we’re in a world where people would want more convincing explanations for, say, attacks by daikaiju-sized golems.1
Then there’s the villain who brings about the crisis. Her personality receives no development, what we know of her backstory makes little sense, and the book provides no meaningful motive for her actions. Basically, the bitchy rival from the cliché romance novel, after tormenting the heroine in petty ways, suddenly reveals she has major supernatural powers and a plot to destroy NYC.
Originality: 3/6 Urban fantasy frequently takes itself too seriously, and Lafferty’s lighter approach delivers the humor the written genre has needed. Its setting, character types, and stylized dialogue, however, recall more than a little the television shows that have shaped the genre. The approach to the material recalls Joss Whedon, while the premise resembles the animated series, Ugly Americans.
I must credit, however, the elements addressed under High Points….
Imagery: 5/6 …Lafferty proves a clever and crafty writer.
Characterization: 4/6 The novel features a better and more plausible heroine than anyone Stephanie Meyer hairballed up, and she carries the story a considerable distance. Secondary characters vary in their degree of development, though most relationships make a kind of sense. Lafferty also puts an original spin on Zoë’s obligatory, mysterious mentor. The villains, alas, remain cardboard cutouts, and this seriously diminishes the story, particularly in the second half.
Emotional Response: 4/6
Editing: 5/6 Lafferty writes in a breezy and highly readable style; her story required revisions.
Overall score: 4/6 Several conflicting intentions pull at this novel. It’s not crazy or absurd enough to be the urban fantasy equivalent of Hitchhiker’s Guide, but it has too much good humor and too little sense of danger to be read as a straightforward urban fantasy.
And then there’s the dark realities: publishers want series and writers only get rich from media tie-ins. Lafferty sets up several elements that deepen the book’s world, but which she clearly intends to address in future sequels. It’s seems likely from the first book that series would work well—-perhaps better—-as a movie or television show. Shambling Guide has much to recommend it, but it has been conceived as potential multi-genre mass media, not literature. How you respond will depend very much on what you expect when you open the book.
In total, The Shambling Guide to New York City receives 29/42
1. This remains the bane of urban fantasy and superheroes alike, the desire to use a world that resembles as much as possible ours, while introducing elements that should significantly changes that world.