Lafferty states The Hitchhikers’ Guide is one of her inspirations for The Shambling Guide, and the influence is recognizable. But instead of Arthur coping with space (which is “really, really big“), Zoe is exploring the darker side of New York City. No, not Wall Street–I’m referring to the monster hangouts. I picked this one up looking for an entertaining read, and it definitely satisfied. Set in one of my favorite cities (naturally), an open-minded, spunky woman takes on urban fantasy staples.
Zoe has returned to her hometown after an editorial job at a travel book publisher –and her affair with her boss–ended disastrously. She’s browsing an unusual bookstore when she notice a man posting a flyer seeking a guidebook editor. The advertiser and others attempt to dissuade her, but she perseveres, finally taking the job after an enlightening dinner with the new boss. She adapts to her new inhuman co-workers, makes friends with a mischievous water sprite and an ex-deity and begins protective training with Granny Mae. When the company gets a new director of Coterie Resources (the polite word for the non-human), the situation starts getting really strange.
There’s no doubt this is an engaging story with likeable elements. Like many UF series, part of the fun is learning how the author interprets the folklore and mythology surrounding the non-human and then integrating it into the human world. Short excerpts from the Guidebook introduce each section (or was it finish? It’s rather hard to tell on a Kindle) and summing up the coterie interpretation of Zoe’s recent location. Zoe is an enjoyable main character; she’s made mistakes, but instead of indulging in self-pity, she’s deciding to move forward and avoid repeating them. Her generally upbeat and open attitude is refreshing. Supporting characters get reasonable development, particularly the enigmatic Granny Mae, Zoe’s boss and various people at the company. Action is appropriately paced, more thoughtful, context driven at the beginning, and then progressing into all-out mayhem.
The most significant downside is an unevenness of tone that left me unsure if this was a romp or horror, because there are rules to be followed for each. The appearance of the C.R. director is a perfect example of this indecision. Then there’s the set-up itself: many of the coterie are human-eaters, some abiding by rules and living peaceably, some engaging in more aggressive hunting. The Public Works is a human institution designed to police the coterie but tends to kill first and ask questions later. I’m certainly open to a UF book that is willing to explore the various shades of gray of acceptable lifestyles, but this seemed unevenly conceived. Protecting her coworkers from getting killed by Public Works seems noble, but her intentions seem to be forgotten as she engages in flirting with and saving of Public Works employees. Hitchhikers’ was brilliant in uniformly absurd but non-deathly consequences–did you ever really doubt Ford and Arthur would escape the poetry-reading Vogons? Or the emptiness of space? (Skirmishes were had, but no one died, except perhaps a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale)–but this has a number of implied murders.
On a personal level, there’s a scene at an incubus club that makes little sense: in Zoe’s willingness to go, her friend’s willingness to protect her–and then promptly disappear–and the general lack of consequences. Zoe almost articulated in the book its similarity to rape, but I don’t feel she or Lafferty gave it the consequences it deserved. Again, a very serious note in a relatively madcap adventure that jarred me out of reading flow. Quite honestly, it felt like the token nod to the female UF genre with token voyeuristic sexuality which was out of tone with the rest of the story. Other eye-rolling moments include a tentative romantic interest and a moment of TSTL (check link for a nice blog post on the phenomenon) where Zoe disconnects from her electronics (why hello, October Day plot line).
Still, with a lot of fun elements and an intriguing base concept, I’m willing to check out the next in the series, just not at full price.
Three and a half hidden stars.