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 York City.
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.