As a genre, urban fantasy is probably one of the most flexible in terms of what can be accomplished with it. With opportunities to incorporate elements from genres other than fantasy – genres like mystery, romance, and occasionally sci-fi – there is a lot of room for play in the genre, and many writers take advantage of it in their own way. From Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, to Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books, all the way to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo’s Trese graphic novels, urban fantasy is a genre that continues to expand and find many intriguing and interesting variations according to the writer.
One of the more popular questions that urban fantasy writers tend to play with is: what would happen if the gods walked among us? This was something Gaiman played around with in American Gods, but Gaiman’s gods in American Gods did not appear to interact very much with humanity at large, moving around half-hidden to the mortals that brought them into existence in the first place. This works well for the plot of American Gods: the nature of the story is such that it would not work at all (or be half as enjoyable) if the gods were more mainstream.
But what if they were? What if the gods were as commodified as everything else in the twenty-first century? And what if that commodification was the only way to ensure their survival in a world that really ought not to rely on them so much anymore thanks to science? A writer could take this premise in a great many directions – it can be utterly horrific, it can be a rip-roaring adventure, it can even be romantic and end happily-ever-after – but A. Lee Martinez goes the comedic route in his novel Divine Misfortune.
The last time I read anything that could be considered comedic urban fantasy was Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, and while I enjoyed it, it made me mostly smile, but not necessarily laugh. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that I really just didn’t care much for the characters, whom found interesting, but not interesting enough to make me want to laugh along with (or at?) their mishaps. It was a long way from Good Omens, which did make me laugh, though even Gaiman claims all the funny bits belong to his co-author Terry Pratchett, who is possibly the foremost writer of comedic fantasy and therefore would know how to write comedy.
It was because of this previous experience that I got curious when I saw Divine Misfortune. I’d never heard of A. Lee Martinez up until that point, but I found the book’s blurb to be amusing, and decided that it couldn’t possibly hurt to give the novel a shot, even if I knew nothing about its author. As it turned out, my instincts to just go with it were correct: Divine Misfortune is an entertaining (and surprisingly quick) read, which delivers quite well on its promise of deity-influenced mayhem.
The first novel the reader would likely compare this to is American Gods, and to do so would not be doing Divine Misfortune any favors. Though the two fall under more or less the same genre, and even the same premise (for the most part), they are two different beasts entirely. American Gods is dark, terrifying, and dramatic; Divine Misfortune is most assuredly not. In American Gods the “gods” of the title might be perceived as dangerous, a threat to humanity, but in Divine Misfortune they are surprisingly human: with the exception of the most famous gods, the gods of Martinez’s novel have to work in order to survive, and like twenty-first century folks they need to use the Internet to find employment.
In fact, that’s how the novel starts: Phil and Teri have decided that it’s time they found a god to worship, this despite Teri’s misgivings regarding the whole idea, and they decide they’re going to sign up with Luka, a raccoon-headed god of good fortune and prosperity – who then announces that he wants to live with them in their house. Things work out well for a while, but then things get dangerous when two other gods from Luka’s past come back to haunt him – and thus put not just Phil and Teri, but some other people besides, in danger.
The first thing I liked about this novel is its pace: it goes by at a fairly rapid clip, meaning I started it the night before, and finished it by lunch time. I find that comedic stories can’t be very long; something about length appears to kill any humor in a novel, and I’m glad that Martinez seems to have found the sweet spot in terms of length for his novel. The plot is nothing complicated, which certainly accounts for the speed with which this story goes: there is no slow, torturous build-up, no lengthy world building, and no very deep character development. This is not meant to be too cerebral a story, after all, and I can appreciate it for that reason.
Despite that, though, I do take some issue with the novel’s climax, which seemed a bit rushed and could have been just a bit more thought-out. It’s not that bad a flaw, but it is there, and some more time invested in that scene would have been interesting.
As for the characters, I think they’re quite interesting, and also quite funny. The humans were the ones I enjoyed the most, especially the women, who seem to form the backbone of this novel. I like how I couldn’t decide whether I liked or was irritated by Teri, but then that’s because I much prefer ambivalence if I cannot outright love a character (though I’ve been known to love a character precisely because I feel ambivalent about them). Bonnie is a fun character too, with a spine I can appreciate, as is Janet, who might strike the reader initially as some some sort of bimbo but is in fact far more than that. In fact, it is this shattering of stereotypes that I appreciate most about the way Martinez has handled his female characters. He treats them well, and I could not be happier for that treatment.
As for the gods, mileage tends to vary: Luka (or Lucky, as he prefers to be called) is irritating despite being an important character in the story, but Quick (Quetzalcoatl, for those who are wondering) is quite fun and mostly sensible. My favorite amongst the gods definitely has to be Syph, though I didn’t like her at first. She gets better, sort of, especially once she reaches a specific, crucial point in her character development, and it’s that “sort of” that makes me like her as a character.
Overall, Divine Misfortune is a rather funny urban fantasy read, asking for very little effort on the part of the reader. There’s much there to make one chuckle, though not outright laugh – or that could just be my particular sense of humor, which even I find bizarre at times. It’s nothing as deep as American Gods, or as dark as the Dresden Files, but then that’s not what it’s trying to be. Taken on its own merit, it makes for a fine, entertaining, and fast read that one can devour in the space of a few hours – and sometimes, that’s all one really wants.