Series: THE SHAMBLING GUIDES SERIES
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—4; Humor—3
Publisher and Titles: Orbit (5/2013)
The Shambling Guide to New York City (5/2013)
As the trip begins, Kevin the vampire continues to threaten and harass Zoë, and she's still wondering whether it was a good idea to bring the anger-challenged Eir along on this trip. Thankfully, Eir is a healer, and her skills are needed almost immediately when a trio of train-robbing ghosts shoots Zoë in the shoulder. The team is taking the Ghost Train from New York to New Orleans, but they certainly weren't expecting to be attacked by ghosts along the way. The coterie team members get to ride in the first class car, but Zoë and Arthur are relegated to coach because they are humans. As Arthur sleeps away the trip in a haze of Benadryl, Zoë meets Reynard Arseneaux, a human man who is a citytalker like herself. Reynard eventually reveals that he is a member of a secretive organization and tries to recruit Zoë to their ranks by promising that he will teach her everything he knows about citytalking.
Zoë learned that she was a citytalker just before Granny Good Mae, her elderly mentor—also a citytalker—disappeared into the waters of the Central Park Reservoir at the end of the battle that ended book 1, so she has no one to teach her how to deal with her citytalking powers. Just before she left New York City, she received a mental message from her mentor indicating that she should stay away from other city talkers, so she isn't sure whether to confide in Reynard or keep her powers hidden. Also riding in the "human" car are some zoëtists—humans who manipulate life forces. Zoë is leery of all zoëtists because the villainess who nearly destroyed Manhattan was one of them, but this group seems harmless enough, with their tiny luggage-carrying golems and their friendly chatter. Zoë even makes friends with one young zoëtist and makes plans to meet up with her in New Orleans.
This novel has a number of plot strands that, for most of the book, move along separate story lines. For example, we have the Zoë-Kevin feud; Zoë's citytalking dilemma; Arthur's search for the zombie cure; Zoë's frustration that her coterie crew doesn't respect her because she is human; Zoë's ever-changing relationship with Reynard; the appearance of Anna, a citytalker ghost who wants to help Zoë learn about her gift; the murder of a magical cat by a demon dog that later attacks Zoë; and a mysterious man without a name who invites Zoë and her friends to a coterie ball. As these thin, seemingly unrelated story threads began to snarl together like a tangled ball of yarn, I was afraid that the author had completely lost control of her plotting. About 2/3 of the way through, I was ready to agree with Zoë when, in a drunken haze, she decided to quit her job and turn her back on the coterie. That scene, for me, was the low point of the novel—such a TSTL moment for Zoë! She demands respect from her team, but then she goes off and acts like an air-headed, immature teenager: gets drunk, picks a fight with Gwen, and stumbles into all kinds of trouble as she staggers back to her hotel. Meanwhile, no one is really working of the New Orleans book, which is the whole point of the trip.
Eventually everything comes together in the requisite showdown scene, which takes place deep in the bayous. Zoë learns the answers to many questions about the history of the coterie and the citytalkers, and Arthur makes a life-changing decision. The plotting and characterization both have some rough spots. For example, Kevin's story line ends very abruptly, without much explanation for the specific actions that lead him to his fate. Arthur is off stage during most of the novel. He refuses to stay in the same hotel as Zoë and her team, refuses to let Zoë help him in any way, and generally acts like a complete jerk (although perhaps I should be more forgiving of someone who is fighting off zombification). The character of Reynard is puzzling. He lies to Zoë the first time he meets her; runs away from the train robbers, leaving her to fend for herself; approaches her in New Orleans with a mysterious job offer; and then disappears again. I have a feeling that somehow he will become either a villain or a love interest, but it's hard to know exactly what Lafferty has in mind for him.
Like the first novel, this one includes a handful of pages from the travel guide, but they are nowhere near as entertaining as the New York pages. The information gathering for the New Orleans book takes a distant second place to the other action and is completed in a few short paragraphs inserted after the showdown scene. All in all, this novel is much less satisfying and certainly less entertaining than the first. The author has Zoë indulge in quite a few repetitive interior monologues in which she pines for her missing friend Morgen, the water sprite, and worries about the dangers of living the coterie life. At times, Zoë is so whiny and thoughtless that she is more like an antagonist than a protagonist, particularly when she says things like, "I don't know what I expect, ever, when I'm hanging out with you people….I seriously need some human companionship tonight….I don't even know why I work with you guys." (p. 155) Yes, she actually calls them "you people" right to their faces—a very bigoted and racially charged phrase that she stupidly uses with creatures who could (and probably would love to) eat her for lunch, all of this while supposedly trying to gain their respect. Click HERE to read chapter 1 of Ghost Train to New Orleans. Click HERE and scroll down a bit to read chapter three.
One last thing: This is the third novel I've read in the past two weeks that uses a non-charged cellphone as a plot device. I realize that the existence of cell phones makes plotting difficult when you need to keep two characters from communicating, but let's hope that writers will begin to get more creative and come up with something more inventive than a dead cellphone.
If you like the citytalker concept, you might enjoy Kate Griffin's MATTHEW SWIFT SERIES. In Matthew's case, the city is London, and Griffin beautifully depicts that city through Matthew's eyes. Click HERE to read my overview of the world-building and my reviews of the first four novels in that series.
The job of keeping the coterie on the straight and narrow falls to Public Works, members of which are—surprisingly—plumbers by trade. Given that many of the Coterie dwell underground, the Public Works employees spend a lot of time in the sewer tunnels beneath Manhattan because that's where both of their skill areas (plumbing and policing) are most needed. Here, one of the coterie explains the purpose of Public Works to a human: "The humans and coterie live in a balance....If we ate everyone, we would be out of food. If the humans drove us out—well, they would probably be fine, but we don't support our own extinction. Centuries ago, the humans invented Public Works to control coterie movement...They keep an eye out for when coterie break the rules, murder humans, et cetera. In reality, they have spies everywhere, and whenever one of us attacks one of you, they assemble." (pp. 92-93) Although Public Works employees are mostly human, we gradually learn that the organization has some secret ties to the Coterie that are unknown to most people.
The series heroine is Zoë Norris, a human travel writer and editor who slinks back to her hometown of New York City in disgrace after a disastrous affair with her married boss in Raleigh, North Carolina.
NOVEL 1: The Shambling Guide to New York City
In the meantime, Zoë strikes up a friendship with a homeless woman named Granny Good Mae who forces Zoë into a strict training program so that she can defend herself against any type of coterie. Granny keeps telling Zoë that She believes in Zoë and wants her to be kept safe...that She has an interest in life. (Note: An important element of the story is that "Zoë" means "life.") We don't learn who "She" is until the climactic closing scene, and that revelation is the key to the conflict resolution. This whole "Granny-the-eccentric-mentor" bit doesn't quite work. The author drops Granny into the story like a deus ex machina, and her character never quite meshes with the other characters or the plot. Early on, Granny's backstory is presented in an info-dump manner, which adds to the awkwardness of the character's uneasy fit with the story line.
The bare-bones plot centers on a series of zombie attacks that are being triggered by someone who is contaminating their brainy food supply. Because the attacks begin with several of Underground Publishing's employees, Zoë and her boss attempt to figure out who is behind these malicious tactics.
Each chapter begins with an excerpt from Zoë's book, The Shambling Guide to New York City, and a few of those excerpts directly relate to the plot. These excerpts are cleverly written (in the manner of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which the author cites as a major influence) and add a nice touch of ironic humor to the story. Each NYC landmark has a coterie-related history. For example, the Statue of Liberty is actually the sarcophagus of a French demon, and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is really the ancient tree of life (the Yggdrasil), which grows to full height every year at the Winter Solstice. Several of these excerpts include references to a momentous and tragic event that takes place on December 8, 2015, so that's a major clue about the time line of the plot action.
For the first half of the book, I was entranced by this new and inventive mythology, and by the author's skill with dialogue and characterization. But in the second half, the story gets bogged down with so many different types of creatures and so many poorly executed plot twists and turns, that I just wanted it to end. In particular, there isn't enough explanation of just how a huge "thing" could possibly move through the canyons of Manhattan in the way that it does. (To avoid a spoiler, I can't go into more detail.) Another problem is that the connection between Zoë and the villain needed to be handled with more finesse. Again, I can't say too much about this without giving away a spoiler, so I'll just say that the "aha!" moment in that relationship comes way too late, with not enough foreshadowing to build suspense for the reader.
The plot is built on a series of coincidences and imagination-stretching elements. For example, Zoë's handsome neighbor (Arthur Anthony) turns out to be a Public Works employee just when she needs someone to get her inside that department. Then, Arthur just happens to be at the right place at the right time to save her life.
My final problem is that Zoë changes from fearful human to kick-ass heroine way too quickly. In the beginning, she knows absolutely nothing about the supernatural world. In addition to her ignorance about the coterie, she also faints or vomits every time she stumbles onto yet another coterie-related abomination. Just a month or so later, though, she knows more about the coterie than the well-trained Public Works experts know, and she takes the lead in figuring out how to defeat the villain.
In the final analysis, I think that the author has come up with a terrific mythology, but in this book, she doesn't demonstrate enough story-telling expertise to take it through to the finish line. On the last page, Zoë announces that she will be taking a writing team to New Orleans to research their next Shambling Guide. I'm looking forward to reading that book to see how the author deals with Zoë now that she has some experience in the coterie world. I do like Zoë as a character, and I admire Mur's world-building ingenuity. It's the awkward plotting that weakens this book. Click HERE to read chapter one of The Shambling Guide to New York City.