Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher have pioneered a fantasy market combining JRR Tolkein’s epic scope with Dashiell Hammett’s savage street smarts. Browse any bookstore: half the fantasies published lately use this popular hybrid, usually not very well. Three new urban fairylands prove their field harbors startling relevance.
Harry Connolly sticks close to home in his debut, Child of Fire, using style I can imagine buried deep inside Butcher’s next novel. But he’s no mere mimic. Connolly courts Butcher’s public, but crafts mythology more pessimistic and action-oriented than Butcher would dare. Despite some wobbles, Connolly hits the “urban” harder than any urban fantasist I recall.
Self-taught hedge wizard Ray Lilly claims he didn’t earn his death sentence, but agrees when the Twenty Palaces Society trades his life for his service. Now senior mage Annalise Powliss uses him as cannon fodder fighting magical abuse. Their radar pings when an entire Washington town forgets its vanishing children, but they arrive to find a situation far beyond some sheer Pied Piper.
Connolly uses fantasy to spin a yarn of civic collapse, exposing bitter secrets lingering beneath suburban tact. He skewers how economy distorts public ethics, as people contort themselves to fit community molds. When Ray suffers in the grip of people frantic to maintain their illusions, we wonder: if some wizard spoke my bitter truth, would I resist too?
Two hiccups distract from the overall novel. Ray keeps picking fights with yayhoos, who force him into vans at gunpoint. Maybe Connolly’s fingers found a comfy place. Then the abrupt ending leaves too many dangling threads for future volumes. But these gripes can’t derail such a good book. I look forward to Connolly’s progress.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch explores Connolly’s Stygian gloom from a more cerebral angle. Where Connolly questions public deceit, VanderMeer probes how individuals lie to themselves. His antihero, John Finch, keeps secrets, deals doubly, and wears a quisling’s polite public mask so well that he forgets his own face, until circumstances confront him with his caustic heritage.
The gray caps, giant walking fungi, have seized the human city Ambergris. Its earthy steampunk edifices teem with biological arcologies, and humanity fears its short, subjugated time on earth. When the gray caps task Finch, a cop, with a double murder of a gray master and human slave, Finch becomes sole owner of a secret that may save or damn all of reality.
Where Connolly assails our senses from page one, VanderMeer builds creeping Lovecraftian dread that seems sluggish until we realize the nightmares have oozed up to surround us. In his forlorn world, philosophical ruminations seem useless when humanity lacks definition. The story never stops building, right up to its final operatic conclusion.
But VanderMeer’s subtle optimism peeks through unexpectedly, whenever horror seems most pervasive. When humanity finds honor enough to make its desperate stand, we realize he’s not just fashionably cynical; he really believes humankind deserves salvation. That covert faith raises Finch above any twenty hip apocalypses cluttering shelves today.
China Miéville carries VanderMeer’s speculations onto the world stage with The City & The City. Miéville uses bleak Orwellian allegory to critique the selective blindness nations turn on each other. The city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same ancient foundations, so do they “unsee” each other by magic? Or do forces more bureaucratic keep them apart?
When someone dumps an American student’s body in shabby post-Soviet Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlú faces an uphill battle. But when evidence reveals the body crossed the border from shiny urbane Ul Qoma, homicide turns into a multinational disaster. The victim may have died inches from where she fell, but proving it may mean war.
Only the mysterious Breach separates Beszel and Ul Qoma. One side of a wall may belong to one city, one side to the other; neighbors don’t know each other, not because of incivility, but because even a friendly nod violates international law. When Inspector Borlú’s chase antagonizes both cities, he discovers truths about his home that he cannot forget.
Miéville, a political economist, highlights the magical power of borders to divide people from each other. Nations perform elaborate rites to defend lines that lack physical presence, and force occult blinders on citizens to maintain necessary illusions. Violating official sorcery invites lightning wrath and stern infernal curses.
Urban fantasy’s popularity in recent years conceals the genre’s astute power. These novels allegorically unpack modern society in ways both insightful and entertaining, reminding us that we need a little adventure and magic in our lives today.
Note: I wrote this review in the fall of 2009, then the paper canceled my column, and this review has sat unread for nearly a year and a half. I have chosen to publish it here because I feel strongly about these books. Evidently, I'm not alone in that, because Child of Fire has produced a moderately successful franchise, while The City & The City won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel.