Anyone who tells you any form of writing is easy either has no idea what they’re talking about or is lying to you. There isn’t a genre, sub-genre or field on the planet that’s easy to work in, not one. Hell, even bad writing requires diligence and hard work. Every single genre is difficult, every single genre is different and every single genre is already so stuffed with writers that getting noticed isn’t quite impossible, but definitely has a similar postcode.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that nothing is closed to you. Put a writer in front of a keyboard and give them thinking time and they can change the world. It may just be their world they change, the warm glow of satisfaction at finishing a project lighting their day. It may be something much, much larger. You don’t know until you start. Until you look at the mountain in front of you and start climbing it.
That brings us to Mur. Mur Lafferty has spent the last decade or so patiently doing two things; writing some of the best contemporary fantasy on the planet and helping other writers learn how to find things a little less difficult. She’s the host and creator of I Should Be Writing, a podcast about process and progress and everything that comes in between. Mur’s a student not just of the game but of how the game is played, constantly willing to try new avenues, approach her work in new ways and constantly push to a be better writer and a better editor. Every project she does she tries something new and every project is worthwhile. I can especially recommend the Heaven series, a blisteringly inventive set of novellas that open with the main characters being killed and dive into one of the most intelligent, open-minded approaches to every form of spirituality I’ve ever seen.
That brings us to Zoe, the heroine of Mur’s latest novel. The Shambling Guide to New York City. Zoe is a travel writer and editor, and a good one too. Returning to New York at the end of a bad relationship, Zoe’s running on fumes when she sees a job for a travel editor at a publisher she’s never heard of. She makes contact and is told she wouldn’t want the job. She pushes and is told the same. She pushes again and finally, Phil, her prospective boss, show her the truth. The job is for his publishing company, run out of a refurbished New York theatre and staffed entirely by supernatural creatures. Phil is a vampire, Morgen is a water sprite, John is an incubus and the rest of the staff include a Welsh death goddess and a variety of zombies.
Phil expects Zoe to run. Zoe doesn’t. She gets the job and the moment she does, she finds herself viewing the city in an entirely different light. New York is full of life, all forms of life and the only reason she hasn’t seen the other kinds before is she hasn’t thought to look. Now she’s paid to not just look, but write about and for them, and they’re all she can see. Along with the demented old lady who claims to be a former CIA assassin and Arthur, her new next door neighbor of course…
Mur makes three very clever choices in how the book is built and they all pay off. The first is to put Zoe through the wringer. There’s no hint of the usual wide-eyed rabbit-in-headlights wonder and endless curve balls that urban fantasy authors use as excuses to carpet bomb you with exposition. Zoe comes in hard, hits a vertical learning curve and falls, frequently. She never stops getting back up, never stops trying and never stops having a hard time. This is really smartly observed writing, taking the normal steep learning curve every office job has and adding monsters, supernatural politics, cannibalism and underground night clubs to it. The mild antagonism Phil shows towards her gives Zoe something to push against and gives the book a base line of conflict that really drives it along. No one’s giving her a break, no one thinks to make allowances for the human in the room and Zoe never stops working around it. You want her to win, as much to wipe the smile off Phil’s face as anything else.
That uncompromising view of Zoe is carried over into every aspect of Coterie, or supernatural, society. This isn’t a cuddly group of refugees hiding out from humans, but rather a series of connected fiefdoms, small groups who mostly keep to themselves are content to either hide from, or feed from, humanity. One of the book’s best sequences sees Phil take Zoe out to dinner to a restaurant that doesn’t cater for humanity. Zoe’s gradual realization of just where she is combines with Mur’s atmospheric writing to hit you with the same sensory overload as she is. This is a world where blood is drawn by age and nationality like wine and zombies have friends in the local morgues who sell them brains. The danger is constant, not out of malice, but because for Zoe, the ecosystem of the city has changed. She’s a lone human surrounded by creatures that could kill her in an instant, and at least one of them wants her work done on deadline. They’re not evil, most of them anyway, it’s just who they are. These are nuanced monsters, characters rather than thinly veiled pieces of research and each of them has their own agenda and own way of life. Zoe, as a travel editor, gets to find this out and so do we, excerpts from the book Zoe’s writing appearing as chapter breaks in the book. This is where Mur really cuts loose, and the sheer invention on display here is amazing. My personal favorite is the reveal that the pigeons in the city are a group mind and a neutral party, favored by everyone for their fierce business acumen.
This level of invention is one of the things that sets Shambling Guide far above its peers. Mur has put huge amounts of thought into not only how the Coterie operate but the effect they have on the city and why they can exist side by side with humanity. The book excerpts are the first real hint of this level of detail but as the book goes on it gets explored through each group Zoe meets and, in particular, Public Works, the human organization who police the Coterie. No one’s life is quite as simple as they think it is, and everyone is, initially, secure in the assumption that it is. Zoe’s arrival, the book and everything that follows shakes New York society up in a way which feels absolutely real and lays the groundwork for some major changes in the sequel.
The third, and cleverest, thing Mur does is choose Zoe as her lead. Starting her from a position of emotional injury, Mur walks her through everything talked about above and more. In the space of one novel Zoe learns how to fight, puts those skills into action multiple times, saves people’s lives, endangers her own, talks down something no one in the city has recognized let alone seen before and still delivers the book on deadline. She gets hurts, physically and emotionally and never, once stops, even though she really wants to. This is a story about a character defining her life, taking control of it one day at a time and that’s so universal an experience that anyone reading this will find themselves relating to Zoe. It helps that she’s funny of course. Mur’s deadpan sense of humor shines through in the book and, yet again, is used with real intelligence. The jokes aren’t here for the book to lean on, they’re here as a defense mechanism for Zoe against the increasingly demented circumstances of her life. Given that she starts off trying out for a job and finishes up fighting for the life of the city against something impossible is pretty understandable.
The Shambling Guide to New York is about difficulty. It’s about how hard it is to write, how hard it is to adjust to a new job and most of all, how hard it is to make your life your own. That last is the thing that Zoe and her colleagues have in common, a constant need to take control of their life and feel comfortable and at home in their city. The fact they succeed, and that the journey is so entertaining, is testament to both Zoe and Mur’s skills as writers. No form of writing is easy and urban fantasy is no exception, but when it’s this good? No form of writing is more fun.