by: Mur Lafferty
The Shambling Guide to New York City is the first in a new fantasy series. Zoe Norris, a publisher from North Carolina who’s come back to the Big Apple after a scandal in her home state has forced her to quit her publishing job and start a new life. She finds a job with Underground Publishing, though everyone she meets warns her against it, and soon realizes she’s in a start-up creating a traveller’s guide for the coterie. (They find the term “monsters” to be pejorative, thank you very much.)
I liked this book quite a bit. It’s not the best I’ve ever read, but it was funny and well-plotted enough that I always remembered to pack it along in case I found myself with some free time. Though the normal-finds-herself-in-monster-reality is a fairly common theme now, I like the Lafferty never allows the book to get too dark; indeed, I finished it right before bed and didn’t at all feel the need to purge my mind with something light and funny lest I get nightmares.
Zoe is an excellent character for the book. She’s determined and intelligent; she does research and informs herself about her new surroundings as best she can, as well as training herself physically to deal with her new surroundings. However, she’s also aware of her limitations against vampires and zombies and succubi, (oh, my!) and tries to act accordingly. She doesn’t always need to be rescued – in fact, she does a little rescuing of her own – but she also isn’t unbelievably lucky and/or stupidly brave. Zoe is realistic – someone pushed into an unfamiliar world who is adapting as quickly as possible but keenly aware of how outclassed she is by those more powerful beings.
Speaking of powerful beings, I like the way Lafferty handled the monsters – er, coterie. They come off as sympathetic and likeable, just different and vastly more powerful than humans. Zoe develops friendships with many of them simply because they are fun people to hang out with; others are kinda assholes. They never quite become too human; the reader is always slightly aware that they are powerful beings. It’s like you’re dealing with humanities’ first cousins rather than completely alien beings. I really think that, in terms of character development, Lafferty couldn’t have set herself up better for recurring coterie characters.
This book is the first in the series, and there’s a good deal of world building going on. I rather like the author’s imagined New York – full of coterie and their hangouts but very similar to modern-day New York. Each chapter is prefaced with an excerpt from the completed Shambling Guide to New York City which actually works really well. I really liked New York for the setting – it gave the author a lot to work with, both in terms of places to visit and feature in the guide and people’s conceptions about the city. The setting is a huge part of the story, so it actually does matter that the author worked so well with it.
There are several storylines revolving around Zoe; I love that even though there’s a small romantic subplot, it’s not allowed to take over the story nor is it featured heavily in the blurb or the cover. Too often books written by women get the romance subplots unduly emphasized; here it is not and it remains a nice, yet small, addition to the storyline. Many of the story’s plots get tied together rather nicely. It’s not very complex but it is well done.
The pacing was a tad bit off in the story, here and there. The ending, an action-packed bit, went a little too fast for me to able to flesh out why things were happening, especially since the rest of the story is paced moderately. I think it was a bit too skeleton-y for my taste; a little more exposition would have been welcome during the action-heavy parts. It is, however, the first book in the series and I imagine that as the rest improve, this series will eventually end up on my must-have-on-date-of-publication list. As for now, it’s on the keep-an-eye-out-at-the-bookstore list; I don’t want to miss the next book but I won’t be perched on the edge of my chair, either.
If you like a lighter fantasy book with action, adventure, monsters, and a realistic human character, you should definitely give this one a read. If you like your fantasy dark and your monsters darker, you might want to give a pass. If you’re a stickler for the best of writing, I would say give this series a few years and then try to get into it. I think Lafferty’s work is only going to get better.