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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.

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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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I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit.  Not in 3D Hobbitscope or whatever the fancy-schmancy option is, but in two dimensions, which is historically about all you need to tell what’s going on in a film.

If I’m not already on record with my love for The Hobbit and for Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I will be many times in the future. I can remember picking up a yellowed paperback copy of The Hobbit, the old one with Tolkien’s watercolor illustration for a cover, at a yard sale when I was about ten or twelve or so.  I’d always been a voracious reader. I’d check out six or seven books at a time from the library. I’d tear through comic books like there wasn’t even a plot to slow me down (and to be fair, these were ’70s-era DC comics, so that’s not far off).

The Hobbit, though. Man, that was something different.  I’d never read fantasy before, and to be initiated with a fantasy world so fully realized and rich … well, it’s safe to say I was hooked. From there, I made my way through a lot of inferior fantasy trilogies, some of them direct rip-offs of Tolkien. That love for the genre remained, though.

I was also pleased with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.  I was ecstatic to see a Middle Earth that looked so much like I had imagined it. I can see the argument that the films were a little too much in the action/adventure vein, but really, have you seen those battles?  Have you read those battles in the original Tolkien?  If anything, Jackson might have been a little too tentative in spots.

The new film adaptation of The Hobbit, though?  It’s pretty much there but maybe not all the way back again.  Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo Baggins.  Sir Ian McKellan slips right back into the character of Gandalf like it’s an old robe, and I even like the portrayal of the dwarves (I was initially afraid that most of them would be used as shortcuts to comic relief instead of filled out as characters, which did happen a little). The Shire and those Hobbit holes yet again make me want to smuggle the family to New Zealand and start digging into a hillside.

So what’s my beef?  Well, I thought the film felt a little flat.  Not for lack of material.  Most of my doubts about the extra material were soothed once I could see that parts of the book, like the scene with the trolls, and new material, like the subplot about the Necromancer, were being used to show the creeping evil that presaged Sauron’s re-emergence.

If there’s one extra piece that doesn’t sit well with me, it’s Azog the Defiler.  As part of the dwarves’ backstory, Azog cuts a terrifying figure: pale and scarred, twice the height of the orcs that he rules, merciless in battle.  Azog has something of a beef against Thorin Oakenshield — some little grudge about Thorin cutting off Azog’s arm in a battle — and he’s hellbent on making Thorin pay.  I’m not sure the film needs this subplot.  Tolkien set up plenty of obstacles for the Company to encounter on the way to Smaug.  To have Azog continually chasing them, only to have the dwarves get away by hook or by crook or by giant eagle?  Well, it kind of makes Azog look like the Coyote to Thorin Oakenshield’s Roadrunner.  I suspect we’ll be stuck with Azog until Thorin takes his head in the Battle of Five Armies, but I can hold out hope that he’ll be dealt with before then.

Do they make an ACME catalog in Orcish?

Do they make an ACME catalog in Orcish?

Maybe another problem with the story, if you’ve read it already, is that there’s no real danger.  As we know the story from the book, the Company doesn’t get whittled down as they trudge their way through orcs, goblins, giant spiders, elves, and men.  So when we see these set pieces where the members of the Company are in peril, there’s no real peril.  And at least this early in the trilogy, there’s not enough characterization for most of the dwarves to make us really care what happens to them anyway.  It’s certainly possible that the filmmakers might decide to throw a curveball and dispatch Fili and Kili in a freak mead-drinking accident, but I think it’s unlikely.

By all rights, every one of the dwarves, and Bilbo along with them, should have died ten times over in the film’s two most ridiculous scenes: the stone giants and the escape from the goblins.  In the film, we have the characters attached to the legs of a stone giant as he rises from the mountainside to do battle with other stone giants.  The dwarves get thrown to and fro, slammed up against mountainsides, and merely suffer the inconvenience of having to brush chips of stone from their shoulders.  The escape from the goblins, for its part, is a silly bit of Rube Goldberg design in which our heroes at one point fall hundreds and hundreds of feet on a section of broken bridge and walk away none the worse for wear.  Words really can’t do justice to this whole scene, which feels like something out of Sonic the Hedgehog, justice, so I shouldn’t even try.  But it does make you wonder if the trilogy will succumb to a syndrome of “Bigger! Louder! More!” out of some misguided notion that it needs to outdo the Lord of the Rings.

It also makes me wonder why similar scenes in the LOTR films were so effective by comparison.  When Frodo and the others are fleeing the Mines of Moria, there’s certainly nothing small or restrained about the way the baddies scrabble on every available surface in their pursuit, and good God, the Balrog is still everything we dreamed it could be.  Even though we knew how those scenes were going to end, we felt tension and darkness.  Maybe this whole difference in tone is a result of the books’ differing tones.  The Hobbit was considered a children’s book, so maybe you can’t really add darkness when it wasn’t there in the first place?  Maybe it was because we were still gobsmacked because we were seeing it all for the first time?  Even those gorgeous New Zealand landscapes seemed like something out of a pastoral fever dream. Now, when we see some of the same gorgeous scenery used for The Hobbit? It’s not as egregious as the SyFy Channel recycling footage from one movie to the next, but it has a touch of “been there, seen folks get chased by Wargs through that.”

Maybe the most disappointing part for me is the movie’s lack of emotional heft.  I’m one of those people who cries at the drop of a hat during a movie, especially if someone is realizing their destiny or dying a heroic death.  You won’t catch me within 100 yards of a public theater showing Amour.  The first ten minutes of Up? I might need a six pack of beer to get through that again.  Boromir’s death? Sob city. Faramir’s anguished, suicidal charge against the orcs? Even that got the tears flowing.  Even the scene where the Riders of Rohan are gathered on the crest of the hills overlooking Gondor, ready to ride down into death’s maw, had me looking for tissues.  But watching The Hobbit? Nothing.  The closest it comes is when dwarves gather around the fire in Bilbo’s home and sing, in voices as deep as the heart of a mountain, about their lost home.  That has the feel of a movie that’s about something.  Maybe Parts II and III will recapture some of that.

Strangely enough, I still have to say I enjoyed The Hobbit.  I know the last 1300 words don’t make it sound that way, but I did.  It was fun, gorgeous to look at, and for an old Hobbit fan like me, it had the feel of going home again.  Unlike some, I didn’t think it overstayed its welcome.  I didn’t tire of it as I was watching it.  At this point, though, the concerns that it raised weigh heavily on my enjoyment of it.  I wonder what it’s like for someone who hasn’t seen the film.  On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, Mary Robinette Kowall, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells discussed the fact that people who didn’t know the LOTR storyline were totally fooled by Gollum’s redemptive path through the first two films, only to be heartbroken when he betrays Frodo.  Is The Hobbit a better film for those of us who aren’t so emotionally invested in it?

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