A lot of urban fantasy heroes feel a little too perfect. Even their flaws are flaws that are meant to look cool, like arrogance, a drinking habit or a vampiric curse.
Zoe, the hero of Mur Lafferty’s Ghost Train to New Orleans, is different. She seems incredibly real. She struggles with self-confidence and with a low-level management job. She’s learnt how to fight monsters, but doesn’t know enough about the culture of the undead to avoid being tricked and confused by them. She gets into socially awkward situations. When she’s not getting her job done, even for perfectly legitimate reasons, she frets about it. It’s nice to read a story from such a plausible perspective.
Ghost Train is a relatively light read. It’s got some interesting ideas and characters, and uses its unusual premise – a travel writer for the unliving – to good effect. It picked me up when I was feeling down. If you like your fantasy fiction to be well grounded then you should give this or the previous book, The Shambling Guide to New York, a go.
A friend recently told me a story about a pottery instructor. This instructor was teaching two groups of students the same course. At the start of the term she told the first class that their final grade would be decided by their best pot, and told the second class that their final grade would be decided by how many pots they made. At the end of the term, the second class were all making better pots than the first class. They hadn’t worried about perfection, but they’d got lots of practice, and so they were making great pots.
It’s a useful lesson for anyone creative, which is to say anyone at all. There’s no such thing as perfection, and the more we strive to make a single work perfect, the less we’re able to move on, get feedback, try something new and generally improve our craft. Mur Lafferty, one of my writing heroes, returns to this theme over and over again in her podcasts. As a writer, you should write the best thing you can, but not spend forever refining that one project. Nothing is perfect, but the more practice you get the closer you’ll come.
Some of my favourite authors are favourites not because of their books but because of other things they do. I’ve only read books by half the folks on Writing Excuses, but I think they’re all brilliant people because of the advice they give. Similarly, I’m a huge fan of Mur Lafferty because of her podcasts, which have given me great writing advice, encouragement, and perspective on balancing writing with depression. It seemed only right, sooner or later, to start reading her books, and I started with The Shambling Guide to New YorkCity.
Books Within Books
Like The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Shambling Guide to New York City takes its name from a book within the book. Zoë, the story’s protagonist, is a travel writer who’s recently moved to New York. There she finds work in a hidden subculture of zombies, vampires and other supernatural beings, editing a travel guide for the undead.
While it’s not as comedic in its focus as The Hitchhikers Guide, The Shambling Guide does share some of that book’s whimsy and humour, and its central perspective of a character adrift in a world that is both strange and frustratingly familiar. Zoë has to deal with sexual harassment from an incubus, the bloody menu at a vampire restaurant, the problem of someone stealing the zombies’ brains from the office fridge, and much more. It’s a book of culture clash, diversity and discovery in what might well be the world’s most cosmopolitan city.
Zoë’s a likeable character, flawed but good-natured and determined. The world building is also top notch, cramming in all sorts of details. This book does a great job of what the in character book is meant to do – introducing you to New York’s monstrous side.
Events Get in the Way
Of course there’s more to the plot than just Zoë writing. She gets tangled up in battling a conspiracy by dark forces, and for me that was the weakest part of the book. It’s not that the plot doesn’t make sense. It’s not that it isn’t earned – it neatly ties together Zoë’s personal life and the world that’s laid out in the story. We’re even prepared for it from early on with the introduction of Granny Good Mae, a mentor who trains Zoë to fight monsters.
The problem is that it’s just not what I most wanted. From a book with such a whimsical concept, I didn’t want an epic, city-shattering plot. I wanted it to stick with the little challenges of writing a travel book about the undead, and that got sidelined by the bigger story. I realise that most people will probably prefer it that way, but I was a little disappointed.
It’s still an enjoyable book. There are oddball characters and situations, a great setting, and even if the plot wasn’t what I expected it was still a cool idea. I like both Zoë and her creator enough that I’ll be checking out the sequel. And with my expectations recalibrated, I expect to enjoy that one even more.
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On a thematically very different note, my collection of short historical and alternate history stories From a Foreign Shore is free on the Kindle today and tomorrow. It’s no shambling guide, but it features some odd culture clashes, including a Viking re-evaluating Ragnarok and an unexpected visitor at King Arthur’s court. If that appeals, please go download a copy.
Did you know that the vast majority of popular novels sold through Amazon are now ebooks? That independent publishers are making huge inroads into the book market? That all of this is producing very heated and often ill-evidenced debate?
If you’re anything like I was five years ago then you had no idea. But the publishing industry is going through a period of huge disruption, and the choices that we make, as readers as well as writers, will shape its future.
The other name on the spine
Do you pay attention to which publisher’s books you’re reading? Or is the only name you notice on the spine the author’s? It might not sound important, but who publishes a book really matters.
Until recently big publishing houses dominated the market. As is the way with business, the number of companies was shrinking through a history of takeovers and closures. But recent years have seen independent authors and small publishers take off in a big way. While the big publishers still claim to be in control, recent well-evidenced analysis by Hugh Howey – here with commentary by Joe Konrath – indicates that the underdogs now represent around half of popular genre sales in the growing e-book market.
And as self-published authors regularly receive 70% of the price of their e-book, as opposed to maybe 12% when going through a big publisher, that’s big news for the writers in question.
Paper vs electrons
What’s that you say, it’s only e-book sales? Well, yes, but the same data indicates that over 85% of genre bestseller sales through Amazon (and by bestseller I mean top 2500 titles, not just the elite top 100) are now e-books.
Sure, some types of books, like textbooks and illustrated books, still sell almsot entirely in a dead tree format. And of course this doesn’t cover physical bookshops, where it’s all about pulp and print. But the books seizing the popular imagination, the Dan Browns, George Martins and bodice-ripping romances, are increasingly selling in electronic form.
Stop Knighton! It’s not that straightforward
OK, yes, the situation is far more complicated than this, and because of limits on the available data it’s also very unclear. Commentators on the issue, whether the million-selling Hugh Howey or the Mighty Mur Lafferty, make this point clear – the big publishers aren’t going away any time soon, and neither are paperbacks.
But the lack of clarity is a sign in itself. If it’s not clear what’s going on then that’s a sign of change, of disruption, of a situation that no-one fully understands because it’s not staying still long enough to map out.
What about you?
As a reader, why should you care?
Because this means that your purchases are helping to direct the future of publishing. Because the format and publisher you choose makes a huge difference to how much your favourite author receives. Because all these changes mean far more diversity of books to choose from – sure, it’s a chaotic age, but for my money that makes it a golden one.
And those of you reading this who’ve been published, whether by a company or through self-publishing, what’s your experience been like? Am I discussing interesting trends or talking rot? Has this disruption affected you? Is it good for you or bad? Leave a comment, make your voice heard.
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons