Thursday, April 22, 2010

Am I an Anti-Urban Fantasy Snob?

You have to be totally dense to have missed the ‘Urban Fantasy’/‘Paranormal Romance’ (‘UF’/‘PR’) genre crazy that has followed in the wake of Stephanie Meyer’s phenomenally successful Twilight series. I was rather turned off by the extreme hype that surrounded it, finding the swooning teenage girls irritating and the sudden blanket publicity rather oppressive (I only watched the first Twilight movie a couple months ago), andtwilightteams have until now pretty much tarred every novel pigeonholed in the genre with the same negative brush. Now that New Moon has been released, and the prevalence of the ‘Team Edward’  and ‘Team Jacob’ merchandise (see right), I’m even more wary of the genre and have even considered crossing the road to get away from the occasional rabid fan.

Have I been narrow-minded? Quite possibly. Ignoring the fact that I know postgraduate literature students who are fond of the Twilight novels (not all of them in an ‘ironic’ way – and don’t get me started on that), in some ways there are things that characterise these novels that I potentially could like very much. Reading some of the synopses or blurbs printed on the backs, I am put in mind of Buffy and Angel knock-offs in book-form. (One of Kelley Armstrong’s books was, after all, described as “mak[ing] Buffy look fluffy”, which I thought boded well.)

Being a fan of these two shows – not to mention Supernatural and Sanctuary, I’ve found myself thinking about giving some UF a try. After all, the books could benefit from the ‘unconstrained’ book format; less susceptible to network demands or controls, no need to worry about prime time taboos, and so forth.

I remain cautious, however. An awful lot of these novels sound like… well, soft-werewolf/vampire-porn trash. Sorry, but it’s true. Also, having flicked through some of them on the shelves of my local bookstore, I can certainly say that the ‘love’ scenes contained within are utterly laughable, and the least ‘erotic’ or ‘sensual’ things I’ve ever read, packed full of cliché and hyperbole, not to mention the unlikely fact that everyone in them appears to be an absolute master in the bedroom (or in the alley, on the desk, in back of the car, etc.), reading them makes me cringe. I’m no prude, but seriously – there’s a reason the Friends episode about Chandler’s romance-writer mother was so funny.

So where am I going with all this? Well, I’ve decided to swallow my prejudices – and pride – and read some urban fantasy novels. Thanks to the lovely people at Orbit and Solaris, I have a couple to start with. [At least, I think these count as Urban Fantasy…]

Rhodes-CircusOfSins First off, Solaris sent me Natasha Rhodes’s Circus of Sins today, so I shall probably start with this one (it’ll still be a little while before I get to it, but thought I’d write something now anyway). The book’s design reminds me of a semi-horror novel I owned years ago, by Kristin Kathryn Rusch (Sins of the Blood), so it caught my attention. Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

When young Vampire-Hunter Kayla Steele is bitten by a werewolf, she thinks it’s the end of her world. However, little does she know that the real end of the world is not that far away. Master Vampire Harlequin has made a deal with the Devil and is now planning to commit the ultimate sin – killing an angel – which will trigger an ancient curse and bring about war in heaven.

If that happens, it will be the end of mankind forever.

Kayla’s only hope now lies in a mysterious stranger named Niki, who knows where the angel is being kept. Together, they must rescue the angel before midnight on Sunday in order to stave off Armageddon. But unless Niki is who he claims to be, the stakes just got one hell of a lot higher…

This is actually book three in the series (which started with Dante’s Girl and then The Last Angel – both also released through Solaris), but for once I’m not obsessive enough to insist on reading the entire series: there’s bound to be some form of catch-up passage in here, so I will just stick with that. It sounds very much like a grander Buffy plot, so I’m actually rather looking forward to this. I might bump it up the review roster/timetable, depending on my mood when I finish my current read (Joseph Finder’s excellent thriller, Vanished). I will also happily admit to being swayed by the testimonial from Dan Abnett (one of my favourite authors), who is quoted on the back cover:

“Taut and gripping. Natasha Rhodes’s prose is that precious thing: the stuff you just can’t put down…”

Untitled-2 The second novel is a slightly different: Marjorie M. Liu’s The Iron Hunt, which is the first in her Hunter Kiss series. Despite the terrible tag-line that graces the top-right of the artwork (“Dark Blood Will Flow”), it again has a rather interesting premise:

During the day, Maxine’s tattoos are her armour and she is invincible. At night, they peel from her skin to take on forms of their own, leaving her human and vulnerable – and showing themselves to be demons sleeping beneath her skin. But these demons are the best friends and bodyguards a woman can have. And Maxine needs bodyguards. She is the last in a line of women with power in their blood, trained to keep the world safe from malignant beings who would do us harm.

But ten thousand years after its creation, the prison dimension that kept the worst of these from us is failing, and all the Wardens save Maxine are dead. She must bear the burden of her bloodline and join the last wild hunt against the enemy.

It sounds rather like Buffy again (“The last of her kind, a Warrior awaits the call”), and the “prison dimension” put me in mind of the ‘Phantom Zone’ of the Superman mythos. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of the living tattoos (one assumes it will be an idea better executed than the fellow in the Elektra movie with the living tattoos). So, again: rather interested in reading this one.

Frostbitten_B.indd The final UF I have lined up is Kelley Armstrong’s Frostbitten. I’m not strictly sure if this is actually UF, but it seems to be lumped in to the genre all too often, so it’ll count (I think the same can be said for Laura K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series). I’m actually less cautious about reading this, as I have already read one of Armstrong’s thrillers, Exit Strategy, which I thought was very good and written in an interesting, and quirky style (at least, quirky for a thriller). Armstrong’s UF series, however, are both more popular and more established. Here’s the synopsis of Frostbitten:

After years of struggle, Elena Michaels has finally accepted her life as a werewolf, and learned how to control her wild side.

At least, that’s what she believes when she sets off to investigate a series of gruesome murders outside Anchorage. The truth, however, is more complicated. Trapped in a frozen, unforgiving terrain, Elena is forced to confront a deadly secret, and her own, untamed nature…

The third book in series sequence, which has recently been re-packaged by Orbit, Armstrong’s books are clearly being aimed at the Twilight market. The press literature that came with Frostbitten even mentions that “partly in thanks to the explosion of the Twilight phenomenon, sales of Bitten have doubled recently”.  The first in the series, Bitten, was published in 1999 in a previously non-existent (practically) ‘paranormal fiction’ genre. The success of Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series opened the door for authors like Meyer and Charlaine Harris (whose novels have now been turned into HBO series True Blood). The Women of the Otherworld series is now pretty long, featuring eleven books: Bitten, Stolen, Dime Store Magic, Industrial Magic, Haunted, Broken, No Humans Allowed, Personal Demon, Men of the Otherworld, Living With The Dead, Tales of the Otherworld, and Frostbitten. The next in the series, Waking The Witch, will be released on August 5th 2010, through Orbit.

Armstrong-WakingTheWitch [  Canada  /  US  / UK  ]

So. Urban Fantasy – the jury’s still out, but I’ll read the three novels mentioned above, and get back to you. Should be an interesting couple of weeks, at any rate – who knows, I might even be sucked in to the genre and read everything in it!

*        *        *

Rice-VampireLestatAs a side-note, I wonder if, had they been released today, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles would have been listed as ‘Urban Fantasy’ or ‘Paranormal Romance’?

Certainly, books such as Blood & Gold, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, and The Vampire Armand are sufficiently… well, tame to appeal to the Twilight crowd, even if they are certainly more ‘grown-up’ ( despite the overuse of the word “love” in these novels, to an extent where I now raise an eyebrow at its every use).

Rice’s output pretty much fizzled out after Memnoch the Devil (book five of the Chronicles), sadly. Merrick was the last one to really grab me from start to finish. The other novels in the series never really felt as necessary, engrossing or bewitching as earlier volumes, despite remaining good reads – this is largely down to Rice-QueenOfTheDamnedRice’s gift for writing atmospheric scenes and making you feel almost present in the novel.

The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned remain two of my favourite books of all time, though, so expect a retrospective review soon. Probably quite soon, as I’ve recently re-watched the superb Interview With A Vampire and the less-superb Queen of the Damned.

I do seem to be in the mood for vampire-related media, recently: I watched all three Underworld movies last week, and I intend to work my way through the Blade trilogy as well next week.

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