Writing a post modern urban fantasy mash-up set in New York City, the natural home for all such tales you would think, is not necessarily as easy as it sounds.
It is one thing to imagine a fantastical, credulity-bending world between, throughout and underneath the ordinary everyday almost gothic environs of New York City, in which water sprites, death goddesses, incubus and sucubus, zombies and vampires live, work, eat and play with as much chutzpah and indifference as the multitudinous humans around them.
Quite another, however, to make it seem so real, so touchable palpable you could believe it really does exist, and that your next trip to the city that never sleeps might include a snarky glance from an aggrieved vampire, a seductive come hither look from a hungry incubus, or a playful night out at the club with an up-for-anything water sprite.
But Mur Lafferty, author, editor and podcaster extraordinaire, manages it with aplomb, not only skilfully bringing such a world to life and making it a living, breathing and often undead entity unto its own, but making it so exciting, funny, terrifying and complex that you can easily understand why newly-arrived in New York City, Zoe Norris, is drawn to it in the compelling way she is.
And why it terrifies and thrills her in equal measure almost from the moment she is accepted for a job as book editor at Underground Publishing, a company dedicated to providing coterie, as they called, with their own much-overdue guide to making the most of the other side of Gotham, the one that humans, save for a select few, have become quite adept at pretending simply isn’t there, all evidence to the contrary.
While her head demands she walk away this instant and leave a world where the normal rules of social interaction simply do not apply, her heart, her gut instinct, battered and bruised from having to flee the aftermath of an affair gone horribly wrong in previous hometown Raleigh, North Carolina, propel her forward into a world that challenges as much as it entrances.
From discovering that a subterranean transport network created by rats and navigated by demonic taxi drivers with a sense of humour exists beneath the crowded streets of her new home to almost having sex in public with an incubus co-worker who feeds off sexual energy and becomes ever more handsome the hungrier he gets, Zoe is called upon to deal with quite a bit in the first few weeks on the job.
Add in a rambling homeless lady call Granny Good Mae who insists she train in coterie-fighting arts, no questions asked, a vampiric boss who can only get about in the wee small hours and co-workers who might get hungry one day and simply decide to chow on her, prohibitions be damned, and you have to wonder why she doesn’t simply cut and run.
Lesser souls surely would, but Zoe, determined to prove herself both professionally and in the affairs of the heart, steels herself at every turn, eventually finding herself in a battle royale to save the spirit of New York City itself (yes an actual spirit who is every bit as real as the other coterie Zoe encounters).
The Shambling Guide to New York City is a delight from start to finish, ripping along at a giddy pace, but never sacrificing convincing characterisation, believable interactions, whether humourous, whimsical or downright terrifying, to get to the highly entertaining and dramatic finish line.
The insertion of pages from the coterie guide Zoe is working to create, when she is not fighting for her sanity and her life, and in need of a good croissant and coffee, at the start of each chapter are a nice touch, bringing to further life Lafferty’s breathtakingly inventive world and giving the “monsters”, a pejorative term Zoe is quickly encouraged to desist from ever using, as much flesh and blood reality as the humans they uneasily co-exist with.
Mix in some of the idiosyncratic silliness of Douglas Adams, an author who Lafferty regards as one of her writing heroes, and an eye for vividly realised detail, and you have the sort of post modern urban fantasy that so many other books, TV shows and movies aspire to be.
I can only hope that Lafferty does act upon her stated desire to add New Orleans, Boston and even Australia to her Shambling series because the world is very much in need of someone as creatively clever, funny and dramatically intuitive as she is.
And who knows? There may be an outside chance it is all real after all.
Mur Lafferty certainly makes it feel that way.