Archive for August, 2013

Early on in The Shambling Guide to New York City, I realized I had a fundamental difference of opinion with Mur Lafferty. She loves cities, and while I wouldn’t say I hate them, I don’t have a lot of use for them. I admire the way their population density allows for certain things: mom and pop corner stores, for example, or small niche shops that can exist only because of the high traffic.  In my youth, way back when my youth was an actual fire and not a sputtering ember, I always enjoyed the nervous energy running through their streets (although I always made someone else drive).  Now? Well, I’m not so old that I’m telling kids to get off my lawn just yet, but cities with their loud noises and their fast pace and their pushin’ and shovin’ … well, they make me a little nervous.


Not so with Lafferty, and not so with her heroine Zoe, who arrives in New York City after a job and a relationship in North Carolina go sour.  Zoe loves New York, always has, but that doesn’t make New York any less tough when it comes to her job search.  One day, though, she comes across a posting for Underworld Publishing.  She applies, or at least she tries to, but seemingly everyone she runs into tells her that she’s not a good fit for the job.  Thing is, they won’t tell her why, which only makes Zoe more stubborn and determined.  Eventually, her perseverence lands her an interview and she discovers that Underworld Publishing is dedicated to publishing travel guides for zombies, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night.  Yes, they’re all real, and they’re just as fond of restaurants, museums, and tourist traps as anyone else.

So right away, Lafferty’s Shambling Guide (also the name of the travel guide Zoe brings to life) acts as a sort of alternate history of New York.  The monsters have always been there, having worked out an agreement with the human population (or at least certain informed portions of it) that allows both sides to co-exist without too much conflict.  This means that certain landmarks hold double meanings for humans and for coterie (the name preferred by Lafferty’s supernatural folk).  Humans might go to a museum for its priceless art, and coterie might go there for the same reason, but it’s also possible that the building also acts as a prison, or a safe area, or a place of worship for the coterie.

One thing I like about Lafferty’s concept is that it lets her interject snippets from Zoe’s completed Shambling Guide between the chapters of the primary story.  We find out about restaurants, book shops, landmarks, and other things of interest to coterie. We get to see a little more of the texture that makes up the world Lafferty’s created.

I first came to know Lafferty through her eminently practical (and empathetic) I Should Be Writing podcast, which finds Lafferty not only giving voice to her own doubts and epiphanies as a writer, but also trying to guide others through the waters of professional writing as she’s experienced it.  She usually wastes little time getting to the point and dispensing with misconceptions about the writing life.

The Shambling Guide adopts a similar strategy, and that’s both good and bad.  There’s no denying the story’s a page-turner; your firm stance that the next chapter will be your last before turning out the lights evaporates pretty quickly when you get to the end of said chapter.  Still, I wish the story had just a little more heft to it.  Zoe is surrounded by fantastic beings and creatures, and it is her story, but it comes at the expense of knowing many of the other characters very well.  We’re meant to see this world through her eyes as she revels in the color and flavor of the coterie world, but also brushes up against its dangers.  She works with zombies, vampires, a water sprite, even a death goddess, and many of these characters get considerable “screen time.”  However, by book’s end, I know very little about what makes them tick. They’re of obvious value to Zoe as guides to the coterie world, and even as friends, but they remain ciphers to the reader.  That may be something that’s addressed in the next volume of the series, which takes place in New Orleans, as we get to learn more about these characters that we’ve met. But it may not be Lafferty’s intent to bring too many of these characters along (I’m sure New Orleans has plenty of its own)in the second book. So we’ll see.

In a similar way, Lafferty dispenses with the usual complications that other writers would throw at you once the main villain has been identified.  I got towards the end of the book thinking, “How is she going to make this story jump through the usual hoops before it’s all said and done?”  Lafferty’s answer is to just have a big fight and get it over with.  Zoe and company still get their asses kicked around, but there’s none of this hero’s journey folderol to weigh things down.  In this case, despite my folklore leanings (and love for the Hero’s Journey), I approve.

I enjoyed The Shambling Guide to New York City.  I wish it had more characterization when it comes to the supporting cast.  Plus, just between you and me, I think Phil is a terrible boss.  Zoe deserves about four raises.  Still, Lafferty’s constructed a fun world and it’ll be interested to see how she builds it out in the future.


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