Thursday, July 25, 2013

Three urban fantasies

(cover image from

I've been reading a lot this week, so I'm going to combine brief reviews of three urban fantasies into one post. These are listed in the reverse order of which I read them, and in roughly the reverse order of my preference, too, although I enjoyed them all.

All three are set in the present day, where magic - and magical creatures - exist, unknown to most people.

Jim Butcher's Storm Front (2000) is the first in his popular Dresden File series. Harry Dresden is the only wizard listed in the Chicago phone book and is on retainer with the Chicago Police Department. Nevertheless - somehow - magic stays hidden from ordinary people, even when an evil wizard commits murder by causing his victims' hearts to explode out of their chests.

Pretty soon, everyone thinks that Dresden has done it,... for absolutely no reason at all, that I can see. Apparently, the police think it was him because he's the only wizard they know personally. And the White Council thinks that it was him because... they just don't like him, I guess.

Clearly, no one in this book seems to be very smart, and that includes Harry Dresden (who takes a very long time to put two and two together here). And although advertising as a wizard in the phone book is a clever hook, I suppose, that really doesn't make much sense, either.

Sure, Dresden is a good guy, and as light-weight entertainment, this book is fun. But I wasn't overly impressed. I'll read the next in the series, but I liked the other two books here much better than this one.

Fated (2012) by Benedict Jacka is a very similar kind of urban fantasy - so similar that he acknowledges the earlier book in the first few pages of this one: "I've even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under 'Wizard,' though that's probably an urban legend."

The hero, Alex Verus, owns a magic shop in London. But he doesn't sell stage magic, just real magical items and potion ingredients. (Since this is also a world where magic is hidden from most people, he doesn't get many customers.)

Verus is a mage, himself - a diviner, which means he has the ability to see the future in terms of probabilities. By looking at the results of making different choices, he can select the one with the best outcome. He's basically the thinking man's wizard.

When his friend - a young woman who suffers from a hereditary curse - discovers a powerful magical item, Verus finds himself caught between extremely powerful Light and Dark mages, both willing to kill him if he doesn't help them,... and quite likely to kill him even if he does.

Dark mages are really nasty people who consider power to be all-important. All too many Light mages tend to be seduced by that idea, too. But even when they're not, they're too timid and/or too ineffective to fight back. (Hmm,... doesn't that really remind you of partisan politics here in America?)

This is a very similar idea to the Dresden Files, but I guess I just liked Alex Verus better than Harry Dresden. His friend, Luna, was really appealing, too. When they get trapped in a seemingly impossible situation, it takes some clever thinking - and teamwork - to get them out again. This is definitely a series I'll be continuing.

Midnight Riot (2011) by Ben Aaronovitch (also published as Rivers of London) is also an urban fantasy set in London, also in a world where magic exists, but is unknown to most people. But it's quite original ("vampires" in this book, for example, are very different from anything you've seen before).

Peter Grant is a probationary constable in the London Metropolitan Police, and while his attractive and capable friend is headed to the Murder Investigation Team, he seems destined to a life of data entry. Until he interviews a ghost who's witnessed a murder.

It turns out that Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale investigates crimes involving magic, and Peter becomes his only apprentice. There's plenty of danger involved, as they try to stop a vengeful ghost who causes people's faces to fall off (among other things), and the book gets more suspenseful than I expected. But it's also chock full of humor.

Plus, it's very different. Peter Grant is just a beginner at police work and magic, both. And although he's an appealing character, he's not especially skilled at either. The magical creatures he meets are quite unique, too. I was impressed by that. (My biggest problem with most fantasy is that it's so derivative, so much like other fantasy.)

The book isn't perfect, but I loved the humor in it. I also liked the fact that the situation went further into tragedy than I expected. Peter can't miraculously fix everything. Combine that with an appealing hero - indeed, a number of appealing characters - and I have to say that this is my favorite of these three books.

Of course, I read this one first, so maybe that has something to do with it.

PS. OK, no one reads a fantasy novel and thinks that it's real. I know that. And plenty of fiction tries to justify the setting, pretending to be something other than fiction (even though it's not actually meant to fool the reader).

But I'm allowed to have pet peeves, right? :)

Here's Fated:
You can think of magical talent as a pyramid. Making up the lowest and biggest layer are the normals. If magic is colours, these are the people born colourblind: they don't know anything about magic and they don't want to, thank you very much. They've got plenty of things to deal with already, and if they do see anything that might shake the way they look at things, they convince themselves they didn't see it double quick. This is maybe ninety percent of the adult civilised world.

Next up on the pyramid are the sensitives, the ones who aren't colour-blind. Sensitives are blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with a wider spectrum of vision than normals. They can feel the presence of magic, the distant power in the sun and the earth and the stars, the warmth and stability of an old family home, the lingering wisps of death and horror at a Dark ritual site. Most often, they don't have the words to describe what they feel,...

OK, obviously, that's complete bullshit. 99% of people reading that would be certain that they're one of the sensitive ones, when they'd just be gullible, suggestible, and very eager to think themselves special.

Of course, as I say, this is just fiction. People don't actually believe this. But they might spout such nonsense as "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." You see, most people want to believe in magic, even if it's not actually this magic, which they know is just fictional.

But that's not so bad, not compared to this, from Storm Front:
The end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the new millenium had seen something of a renaissance in the public awareness of the paranormal. Psychics, haunts, vampires - you name it. People still didn't take them seriously, but all the things Science had promised us hadn't come to pass. Disease was still a problem. Starvation was still a problem. Violence and crime and war were still problems. In spite of the advance of technology, things just hadn't changed the way everyone had hoped and thought they would.

Science, the largest religion of the twentieth century, had become somewhat tarnished by images of exploding space shuttles, crack babies, and a generation of complacent Americans who had allowed the television to raise their children. People were looking for something - I think they just didn't know what. And even though they were once again starting to open their eyes to the world of magic and the arcane that had been with them all the while, they still thought I must be some kind of joke.

OK, obviously, this is complete bullshit. Yes, I know I said that before, but this is really ridiculous, isn't it?

Again, it's just fiction. It's simply used to justify the situation. Fiction frequently does that, and it really doesn't mean anything. No one is going to read these books and think that magic is real. No one. But it still gets my goat, I guess.

Another thing I liked about Midnight Riot is that it doesn't do this. It doesn't even make a fictional attempt to justify itself. It is, after all, just fantasy fiction, so why should it? Even a skeptic like me can enjoy fantasy. And even the most gullible person in the world isn't going to confuse these books with reality.

PPS. Check out my other book reviews here.

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