Not the Usual New York City – A Review of The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

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Everybody has a few dreams: the kind that one knows one can never really reach, the kind one muses on in a wistful sort of way, despite knowing that it will never really come to pass. Dreams are free, after all, and if occasionally daydreaming about being a supermodel or a famous athlete helps in coping with the day-to-day grind of reality, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

For my part, a favorite daydream (among many) has been that of food-and-travel writer. I guess it’s because I’ve watched too much food and travel television for anybody’s health (to say nothing of the books I’ve read), but I honestly can’t think of anything more fun than traveling around the world doing nothing but seeing the sights and eating my way through every stop. My family is the sort that loves to travel, and it also loves to eat, so the two concepts have always gone together in my head as two of the most pleasurable experiences in life.

Of course, I know it’s not easy work. Traveling can be hazardous, especially for a woman, and there’s no knowing if the food or water is actually safe to consume. I’ve had stomach troubles before, and that’s when I’ve eaten food here in my own country. And then there’s always the possibility I might be allergic to that one rare, very specific kind of food or ingredient that will cause me to go into anaphylactic shock, and which I didn’t know I was actually allergic to because I’d never encountered it before and so always believed myself to be impervious.

But hey, part of daydreaming is the privilege of being in one’s preferred scenario without any of the actual hardship.

This is why, after reading the blurb for Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City, I decided to pick it up and give it a go – well, that, and I kind of miss reading about urban fantasy in an actual contemporary urban setting (as opposed to something like Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, which is set in the past but operates on the same tropes as urban fantasy).

The Shambling Guide to New York City is the first book in Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guides series. Zoe Norris, a travel writer who’s found herself out of a job due to a complicated situation involving her boss and her boss’s wife, moves to New York in the hopes of starting her life anew. It is there that she encounters a man named Phil, who happens to run a publishing company called Underground Publishing, and who also happens to be looking for an accomplished editor with experience in travel writing to begin work on a series of specialized travel guides about New York.

There’s just one problem: she might not be suited to the job – not because she lacks experience, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s human. As it turns out, Zoe has stumbled into a world of supernatural beings, or the “coterie”, as they call themselves, and she is not prepared for any of it. However, she knows a good opportunity when she sees it, and refuses to let go, leading to her being hired and working for Phil alongside his very strange (and occasionally dangerous) employees. And as Zoe settles in, learning how to deal with her coworkers and her boss and this new world she’s somehow inserted herself into, she gradually comes to realize that something much bigger, and much more dangerous, is looming on the horizon – and she just happens to have a bullseye for it painted right in the middle of her forehead.

Obviously, the premise for this book was practically irresistible to me. Travel writer? Check! Supernatural entities? Check! New York City? Ooh, check! This was helped along by Lafferty’s writing: her language for most of the novel is easy to read, nothing too complicated or overwrought – which is, really, as it should be, given the kind of character Zoe is and the kind of material she’s writing. It helps the novel move along at a cheerful clip, and many of the action scenes move along relatively smoothly. However, towards the end the writing kind of stalls a bit, mostly because the action scenes are a little bit confusing. It’s not that the scenes are complicated, it’s just that the language gets strange, as if written by someone whose nerves are being jangled beyond what they can bear. I suppose this would be accurate to what’s happening to Zoe (who is the primary narrator for this novel, told in third-person limited), but I do wish it had been written with a bit more clarity.

Speaking of Zoe, I like her for the fact that she doesn’t fit in the typical mold of urban fantasy heroines: she’s not a supernatural or half-supernatural entity, and up until the events of the novel she hasn’t had any contact with the supernatural, or even known that any of it existed outside of fiction. She starts out completely, utterly helpless, and has to find her own way around before she gets killed, and I find that a refreshing change from the usual urban fantasy heroine, most of whom start out armed with enough weapons to supply the needs of a small mercenary army, or with enough experience in the supernatural to smoke out what’s going on by just sniffing the air. I liked the way Zoe reacted to the supernatural, neither running away screaming nor intensely interested in it. She tried to act sensibly, attempting to figure out just when she needed to push boundaries or when she needed to toe the line, and always trying to ask questions – as long as asking questions wasn’t rude or, worse, got her killed (always a distinct possibility with the coterie).

As for the world Zoe and the people around her live in, I think I rather like it – or at least, I like the feel of it. When compared to other urban fantasy novels, the supernatural world as Lafferty builds it for The Shambling Guide to New York City isn’t all that different from many others, but that’s just fine, I think, because of the nature of her protagonist and the kind of story she’s trying to tell. It would have been one thing if she’d been trying to go for something along the lines of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, or Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, but that’s not the case. Lafferty might not have created a brand-new kind of world for her story, but the way she she presented it through the eyes of her characters made it feel fresh – and sometimes that’s all it takes.

However, for all that this book is a light, fun read, it isn’t without its problems. The main problem I have with it is in a particular scenario that I feel could have been done without. I refer specifically to the part wherein Zoe, along with her coworkers Morgen the water sprite and John the incubus, go to a bondage club so Zoe can find out how incubi and succubi live as part of her education in the ways of the coterie. It’s been established prior to this scene that John has taken an interest in Zoe, though up until this point it’s been passed off as nothing more than hunger on his part – he’s an incubus, after all, and it’s in his nature to want to try to have sex when he’s hungry.

What becomes increasingly clear, however, is that this isn’t just some passing fancy: he’s targeting Zoe specifically, and while in the club he essentially uses his powers like a date-rape drug so he can have his way with her. I suppose this was meant to illustrate the dangers of associating with incubi and succubi, but I think the same goal could have been achieved without resorting to a date-rape scenario. It doesn’t help that John also pretty much gets away with the whole event: he isn’t fired from the publishing company, and Zoe is forced to deal with him at work. What’s even worse is that I was so caught up in Lafferty’s writing style that I didn’t catch on to this right from the get-go: I felt that something bothered me about the book, but it wasn’t until I skimmed it in again in preparation for writing this review that I actually caught it. The way this is glossed over feels deceptive and dangerous, especially for something as disgusting as attempted rape, and I wish that Lafferty hadn’t put the scene in at all – or at least, kept it short. Instead she lingers on it, and the whole thing feels disgustingly and disturbingly gratuitous.

Overall, The Shambling Guide to New York City is a pretty fun read for the most part. The concept is fascinating; the language is easy to read; and the protagonist is pretty fun and stands apart from other urban fantasy heroines in that she knows absolutely nothing about the supernatural, and has to learn how to cope. Unfortunately, a particular plot thread that really, really could have been done without will make keen readers’ hackles rise, and will in all likelihood trigger more than a few. Do approach with caution, and skip the part if you wish – it’s completely gratuitous and won’t affect comprehension of the rest of the story at all.

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