I had almost reached the halfway mark before I stopped in disgust. Although tempted to toss my reading material to the floor, my ingrained love for books is s strong, I settled for setting it down firmly on the side table and taking a deep breath. What set me off was a scene where Zoe, the lead character, picks a confrontation with one of her closest friends, following the (female) UF trope of: 1) getting in a fight with supernatural beings because they “eat people” when the character already knows that supernatural beings eat people, 2) getting ridiculously drunk as a way of coping with said stupidity, and 3) doing something so ridiculously stupid but needful for the plot that being drunk is the only way to explain it.
So many in the UF genre (and don’t get me started on paranormal) go straight to the trope-ridden character and use those weaknesses to propel the plot forward through the mid-twenties life-stage challenges. Maybe the key here is writing skill; a good writer will use language that interests, build a world that engages and a character that evokes a reaction beyond the urge to slap someone upside the head. It’s my own fault, really: I’ve been reading Kraken and then this book arrived at the library. I thought it might be a quick diversionary read while I waited for a long enough time chunk to devote to Mieville. Instead, it highlighted the difference between a writer who is linguistically gifted and one who sorely needs more practice in language, plotting and characterization.
The premise of the Shambling Guide series is absolutely fabulous, and without doubt, it is the hook that keeps me reading. Like Seanan McGuire in the InCryptid series, Lafferty does a great job bringing interest and character to a variety of supernatural characters including a Welsh death goddess, a Valkyrie and an Irish ghost. The concept of Zoe, lead character, being a human editor of a team of supernatural writers is genius. Lafferty leads chapters with entries from the Guide, which gives it a fun flavor and ties the premise in to the storyline. One of the structural problems here, however, is that actual writing ofthe guide takes backseat to various nefarious activities, as well as the drama and angst of Zoe’s boyfriend Arthur. The rest of her coterie team continues to tell her how worthless she is as an editor, until she unleashes her ‘authority’ in a fit of micromanaging, dictates they do something entirely unrelated to their job to prove she is boss, and subsequently wonders why things aren’t going well. I don’t know why then don’t eat her, honestly, except of the vague threat of the vampire publisher to harm who harms her.
Come to think of it, what I really don’t like is Zoe. She’s rude to people who are being perfectly polite, she makes a million assumptions (I might be exaggerating), generally lacks compassion but is perfectly capable of feeling sorry for herself, has virtually no investigative skills or interest in exploring the city, and is frequently horrified by the coterie around her–in short, everything an editor/team leader shouldn’t be if one is reaching out to the public to write a book. Imagine Sookie confronting werewolves in a bar, but with a leadership position. Oh wait–you probably read that one. And don’t you just wish you hadn’t?
To make matters worse, Zoe’s ‘secret’ skill–which everyone seems to know by the end of the book–becomes compounded with more speschul skills. Oh, and we discover she is an orphan (ok, that might have been in the last book, but she was more obsessed with getting over her old romance and didn’t talk about it very often) and had a distant relationship with her adoptive parents. That’s right–the tropes of Speshul Snoflake and Orphan Discovering Her Past makes a fast and furious appearance, bustling in with new magics to save the day and a stack of excuses for irrational behavior. (Of course, no one tells her how to use these skills, so she whines a bit, stomps off and then complains she doesn’t know what to do).
Sigh. So what I’m saying is, Zoe’s kind of a jerk, and I really don’t like spending much time with her–much like immature October Daye (review)–but since she seems to change according to authorial needs, I’m not sure if it is a characterization issue or a character one. On the positive side, the world-building is very clever and the New Orleans setting is done nicely. For those that enjoy a little romance, there’s a distracted relationship with another standard trope–Grumpy Man from The Opposing Side– that is unsatisfying and unbelievable on many levels. On a positive note, the final action scene was nicely done.
Overall, a disappointing follow-up to the Shambling Guide to New York City, not even satisfying in the Cracker-Jacks category.
Bonus: half a star added for avoiding the trope of a woman with tattoos/bare midriff/shrouded in shadow on the front cover.