Don't Shake the Flask

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Tag: urban fantasy

TBR Pile #2 – The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

Note: The TBR Pile series of posts aren’t strictly book reviews. It’s my excuse for writing a rambling blog post. While it will contain some of my thoughts about the book, I’ll may digress into other topics.

Okay, so my attempt at posting more regularly by writing about my to-be-read pile is not going as smoothly as I’d like. For one thing, I’m pretty busy with work stuff and I just haven’t found all that much free time to devote to reading. And another thing, despite my higher expectations for Shinn’s The Shape of Desire, this has turned out to be a dud. It was even less interesting to me than the first book on the TBR pile. So much so that I’ve decided to give up on it after page 70. Because I really don’t want to waste my time trying to slog through the rest of the book when there’s other stuff I could be reading.

Of course, the book could be absolutely awesome in the latter half. But I don’t have the patience for that. If an author is going to put out a book, it really should hook me from the beginning. I mean, it doesn’t have to be utterly brilliant straight in the first chapter, but it has to have something there in order to make me think, “Hey, something cool might be going on, I’ll read further.” For this book, it really did not help that it was in first person and the main character was an emotional wuss. It didn’t even matter if interesting stuff was happening around her, being in this main character’s head was straight up Boringsville. I don’t have to like the character–I’ve read first person stories before where the main character was a total asshole and yet I couldn’t wait to turn the next page to see what the hell was going to happen next–but the character has to be compelling. This character was not compelling.

Anyways, I am pretty disappointed. I enjoyed all of Sharon Shinn’s Samaria novels and a number of her short stories and novellas, but I didn’t find this urban fantasy novel on that same level. My only consolation is that I got this book at a used book store so I won’t have any qualms about returning it. Maybe the next reader will find it more to their liking.

The next book on the pile is the first book in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, The Ruby in the Smoke. And since sometimes I’m more in the mood for non-fiction, I will also be reading Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall at the same time. I started Dreamland about six months ago, but then things got busy and I kind of forgot about the book until now.

TBR Pile #1 – Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon

Note: The TBR Pile series of posts aren’t strictly book reviews. It’s my excuse for writing a rambling blog post. While it will contain some of my thoughts about the book, I’ll may digress into other topics.

At the moment, my bookshelves are mostly unorganized. I say “mostly” because all the fiction books are together and all the non-fiction books are together, but that’s it. I haven’t really had time to organize them alphabetically. So when I made this year’s goal of trying to reduce my to-be-read pile, I simply started by picking the book that was closest to me. And that happened to be the urban fantasy novel Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon. It was first published in 2009, which was approximately when I bought it, randomly at the bookstore. (Yes, I’m one of those people who sometimes buys random books at bookstores.) There are a lot of books on my TBR pile that I bought randomly simply because the back cover blurb sounded interesting.

Unlike a lot of people, I would rather not read series. And I thought this was a standalone since there was no indication on the cover otherwise. So I was rather surprised when I got to the end and there was an excerpt for a sequel. And according to the author’s website, this was simply the first in a quartet. In any case, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to continue on with the series. The first hundred pages was a bit of a slog before the plot picked up and I never really warmed up to any of the characters. The main character/narrator was, frankly, boring. If you’re going to bring the reader into his head, at least make him interesting. Instead he was rather bland–perhaps he was a blank slate for the reader to put themselves into his shoes. I know there are a number of readers who like to do that, but I’m not one of them.

While I thought a number of the elements in the story were too typical for the urban fantasy genre, it was really interesting how the author managed to weave a real world ceremony into the plot. It’s probably the best thing about this book.

Anyways, what’s really bothering me about the book now is the genetics. (Warning: if you don’t want any spoilers, don’t read further.) The main character of the book is part human and part Fey, specifically wraith. And it’s assumed that somewhere in the past, his wraith ancestor dallied with a human. That seemed like the logical conclusion even though the wraiths were part of the group of Fey called the Untainted because they didn’t want to mix with humans. The different courts of the fey are divided by what type of fey they are. The assumption was, if your parents were one type, then you would also be like them. Simple right?

Not exactly. At the end of the book, we find out that mixing in human genes means that it would be completely random what kind of Fey you end up being. Which means that the main character’s ancestor could be a leprechaun for all he knows. This seems counterintuitive to the rest of the book. The main character’s companion/mentor is also part human, but her abilities were just like her mother’s. And since the other Fey did mix with humans, didn’t they have trouble trying to decide which court the kids belonged to if they turned out differently than their parents? And surely there had been other wraiths who had unexpectedly popped up in others’ family trees. If so, why didn’t they just start a new group of good wraiths to counter the bad ones? Or is the protagonist just that special?

Final verdict? Meh. If I weren’t trying to clean out my TBR pile, I would have probably stopped reading sometime before the second chapter and put it back on the shelf. I don’t know what I was thinking when I first bought it in 2009. Maybe my tastes have changed. There are some good points in the book, but not enough to make me want to read the next three books.

The next book on the pile is The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn, the 2012 Ace paperback edition. It’s another urban fantasy, this time about shape shifters. I have slightly higher expectations with this because I’ve read Shinn’s Samaria novels and liked them a lot.

Storm Chasers – Entry #4

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

As Taj reluctantly contemplated the shedu’s essence, now compressed into a small metal bead between her thumb and index finger, the background music to “My Heart Will Go On” blasted through a pair of crackling speakers. She and Ru had decided to retire to a sushi dive on the east side of Powell Street in order to regroup and plan for the next demon take down. Ru had said something about dinner. Which was easy for him to say. She had to eat a demon.

“Aren’t you going to eat that?” Ru ate a piece of tuna roll as a trio of drunk businessmen at the other end of the dive warbled about their hearts on static-y microphones.

“I don’t normally eat demons. But if this doesn’t give me indigestion, they certainly will,” she replied as one of the businessmen hit a high note. At least they were sitting in a back corner booth so the noise wasn’t so loud. Her ears were still recovering from the encounter with the shedu. She grimaced and then tossed the bead into her mouth. Swallowed. She reached for the sake a second later. The alcohol warmed her throat, but it did nothing to alleviate the heaviness in her stomach. It wouldn’t take long for the demon’s powers to augment her own. “I should have said no.”

“Said no? Said no to what?”

“To your suggestion for coming here,” she said, waving a hand to indicate the sushi joint. “If you really wanted sushi, we could have gone to that new restaurant down on Robson.”

“Too fancy,” he countered. “And too many normal people there. Besides, it would be impossible for us to talk about this.” He took out his phone and started playing the recording of the shedu hissing and roaring. Most of it was drowned out by the bad karaoke, but Taj reached over anyway to stop the playback.

“Don’t be so reckless. It’s a wonder you haven’t landed on the local tabloid before now with the humans writing stories about you having alien babies or something.” She poured herself another cup of sake before finally partaking some real food. She crunched on some shrimp tempura as she took in their surroundings. Dim yellow light lit the dive which consisted of a couple worn tables and booths populated mostly by casually dressed regulars. The only concession to décor was a couple of fake bonsai trees near the entrance. “Besides, I don’t see much difference. There are normal people here, too.”

“Sure, but nobody here will bother eavesdropping on us.”

“Uh huh. Well, what about her?”

Ru turned his head in the direction that Taj had wiggled her chopsticks. A short line of patrons stood against the wall, waiting for their turn at karaoke. One of the people in line was a slim, dark haired woman in a jean jacket and extremely short shorts. At that moment, she was staring in their direction with black eyes. Her skin was pale but with a greenish tinge that marked her as one of the sea people.

He scowled. “What is she doing here?” The light rain outside suddenly became a downpour.

“You know her? Who is she?”

Instead of answering Taj, he turned back to the table and muttered, “We need more sake.”

“No, we don’t. Who is she? Is she an ex-girlfriend?”

At her words, his lips curved into a snarl. “You’re fortunate you had some justification for that incident, even if it was a stupid reason,” he said, referring to the last time they met, before Vivian Long put them on the current case. “She almost killed my brother.”

“Your brother? I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“He’s in a coma thanks to her,” he spat. He gulped down some sake. Thunder rumbled outside and the lights briefly flickered, but none of the humans noticed. “I should have struck her down on the spot when I first found out.”

“Why aren’t you striking her now?”

“Contrary to what you think, I’m not an idiot. She’s a princess. If I struck her down, I’d have the sea gods breathing down my neck for the rest of my life.”

“A princess, huh? Strange that she’s slumming it down here today.” Taj pretended to concentrate on her food, but she was aware that the woman had peeled away from the karaoke line and was heading their way. When she got to their table, she struck a pose with a hand on her hip.

“Well isn’t it a sweet coincidence?” the woman said, her smoky voice forcing them to acknowledge her presence. Her voice had a compulsion to it, similar to the Dragon Queen’s, but it was weaker. Despite the fact that the woman was a siren, Taj found it easy not to fall into her thrall. “Fancy seeing you here, Birdie.” The siren glanced at Taj and then continued with a sniff, “She doesn’t seem like your type. She seems a bit…unconventional.”

Taj merely smiled at the barb and ate another tempura shrimp.

A muscle ticked in his jaw, but his words were cool and controlled. “I’m a regular here. You, however, don’t make it a habit to visit dives. I thought you had more…refined tastes. Did your latest rich boyfriend get tired of you?”

The siren gave a brittle laugh. “Oh, you know Dave. He’s pretty busy. I’m just amusing myself here.” She took a step back and wiggled her fingers in a mock wave. In the dim light, a ring with a large blue stone flashed. Taj found herself staring at the ring. Her fingers itched. “It was so good to see you. By the way, have you found your brother’s soul yet?”

Ru’s eyes glinted. A faint, almost imperceptible sliver of smoke rose from where he clutched his chopsticks. “No.”

“Too bad. It’s such a shame.” She turned and sauntered back to her place in the karaoke line.

“Bitch,” Ru growled.

The trio of businessmen began the final stanza of their song, their voices rising in a crescendo as the background music crackled and swelled from the speakers.

The itch in Taj’s fingers intensified. Instinct had her splaying her fingers. The effects of her demon meal finally revealed themselves. Her normally keen senses jacked up and she briefly lost control of her power which called out to any lost souls in the vicinity. She forced her hands to close back into fists and shoved a lid back on her abilities. But it was too late. Several things shattered inside the dive. A woman screamed. It was the siren, clutching a broken ring.

The humans in the sushi dive went silent for a moment before erupting into cheers. They thought the glass broke because of the power of their operatic voices.

Taj stared down at her hands. Faint bluish wisps gathered into her palm and reformed into a glittering, blue gemstone. “I think I just found your brother’s soul,” she said. She hated the fact that her hands were shaking. The power that she had absorbed from the shedu was far greater than she had expected. She shoved the stone into a pocket before anyone else in the dive could see.

Ru slapped some bills onto the table and scooted out of the booth. “Come on. Let’s go before she realizes the humans didn’t actually do anything.”

Storm Chasers – Entry #3

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

When they finally arrived at the squat brick house in Renfrew, the latest victim was already dead. The only remains they could see was an arm frozen in desperation as it stuck out of the front door mail slot. Blood pooled on the concrete step below. The trail of the shedu that Ru had been tracking splattered against the front door in a sickly iridescent sheen only visible to those who had the power to see beyond the normal.

“This way,” said Ru. “The window’s open.”

Extreme caution had Taj glancing around the empty neighborhood. No humans strolled on the sidewalks, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t any glancing out behind curtains. Even so, they would only see slim shadows on the lawn at best. A trick of the light. When those of Taj and Ru’s ilk didn’t want to be seen by humans, they weren’t.

Taj followed Ru to the far right of the house to stand in front of a sliding window painted in white trim. Ru wedged his fingers into the crack at the bottom and pushed the pane up with little trouble. In seconds, they both slipped inside. The bedroom they entered was unremarkable. A bed, a desk, two chairs, photographs, and posters on the wall.

She reached out with her senses for a moment and then nodded for Ru to continue. “I can’t sense anything in this house except for the dead human.”

The bedroom door led out into a short hallway that met with the foyer at the entrance. They both stood shoulder to shoulder at the end of the hallway looking out onto the scene. The shedu had made short work of its victim in an extremely messy fashion. The carpet, whatever its original color, was now stained a permanent dark red. Taj had no desire to step into the foyer so she summoned the victim’s soul to come to her. The tattered, silver wisps rose from the remains and migrated to her fingers easily. So did the victim’s last memories. Her fingers spasmed, abruptly releasing the poor soul. If her stomach wasn’t so strong, her cousin’s baklava would have joined the blood on the carpet.

“It was bad,” she finally said. She cracked her eyes open. Ru looked at her with a narrowed, intense gaze. In the distance, she thought she heard rumbling. Perhaps it was a passing train. “The man had no idea. It suddenly appeared in the kitchen. He tried to run.”

“And didn’t make it.” Ru pulled something out of his back pocket. A phone. He took some pictures of the scene and then carefully skirted around the worst of the area to head deeper into the house.

Taj followed him to the kitchen, which would have looked as ordinary as the bedroom except for the scattered splinters of what remained of a wooden table. Black scorch marks streaked across the linoleum in strange patterns. Ru took several pictures of the patterns before they both squatted down to examine them more closely.

“If I’m not mistaken,” said Ru, “I’d say that these sigils had been etched beneath these floor tiles. The victim probably didn’t know they were there when he bought the house.”

Taj shook her head as she tried to recall the soul’s older memories that had also downloaded themselves into her head. “Your hunch is right. He bought the house last year. The kitchen had been renovated before it was put on the market. How did you guess there was something underneath?”

“I know all about fire’s effect on…” A sudden crash broke into his words as the kitchen window exploded into dark shards.

The shedu stood shrouded in a cloud of thick, black smoke. Even from their crouch on the kitchen floor, they saw only a glimpse of a hoof and a pair of glowing red eyes.

For some reason, Ru simply raised his phone and began recording. Taj wanted to yell at him, to drag him away from the kitchen. To run. But her feet stayed firmly rooted to the spot as the shedu emitted a series of grunts and hisses that made her ears hurt. Something trickled down her neck. It was only when the pattern of smoke slightly shifted that she managed to jump up from her position and fling out her arms.

The demon roared. It had wanted to crush Ru like it did its last victim, but the shield that Taj flung out at the last minute stopped it in mid-strike, its hooves swimming futilely in the air. She breathed hard. The shedu was strong. She couldn’t hold the shield forever. And she was about to tell Ru just so when she saw his mouth curve ever so slightly as he raised his middle finger.

Lightning struck the kitchen, blinding, hot. A terrible wind flung Taj against the wall. She lost her grip on the shield when her head hit something. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit hard enough to knock her unconscious. Instead, her head rung and her eyes saw nothing as she slid to the floor. She breathed hard and blinked several times. After several moments, white nothingness turned into ghostly afterimages and then after another second, flickered back into normal vision.

The kitchen was a complete, smoking ruin. Ru stood near the worst of it, apparently unscathed. Taj wobbled to her feet.

“You idiot. You destroyed all the sigils. It was our only hint on how to lure out those demons.”

He canted his head towards her voice and gave her a familiar smirk as he held out his undamaged phone. “Don’t worry. I’ve got all the pictures. But I believe it’s your job to dispose of that.” He pointed to a small, glowing red sphere where the shedu had once stood.

“I really don’t want to eat that,” she replied as thunder faintly rumbled overhead. She briefly looked up and was not surprised to see that his powers had scorched away the roof. When she looked back at him, he was staring at her.

“You’re bleeding.”

She raised a hand to her ear. “It’s nothing. I heal fast. You’re raining, though. Water is going to make this an even bigger mess.”

At her words, the water droplets came down from the sky. Some of them hit the red sphere, vaporizing into streaks of pale steam.

Storm Chasers – Entry #2

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

The trail went cold at a bus stop near Granville Island. The shedu Taj had been tracking had either managed to disguise itself and get on one of the buses or it had found a host. Both possibilities made her job much harder.

She shook her head in frustration and decided to head to the Granville market to grab something to eat before figuring out what to do next. Back at the museum, she and Ru had discovered that the statue had held seven demons and not just one. And all seven of them were loose somewhere in the city. With just the two of them, they decided to split up to find two of them at a time.

Locals and tourists crowded the market, mostly humans unaware of the other beings watching and possibly preying on them. Taj had little interest in them as she made her way through the throng and toward the pier. Only the dead and dying had anything to fear from her. Once at the pier, it only took her a moment to spot the small stand at the edge of the food court. Jess, one of Taj’s numerous cousins, owned “Three Point Sweets” along with her business partners Ed and Amy.

Today, all three of them were dressed like time travelers from the 1950s. Taj spotted Ed at the back of the stand stirring a large bowl of dough for the next batch of pastries. His homage to the Fonz was spoiled by the fact that he had on an orange apron over his costume. Amy, busy restocking the display case, wore a bright blue poodle skirt. Jess manned the cash register wearing a delightfully retro black and white strappy dress. Her cousin’s caramel curls were pulled back into a ponytail which bounced every time she gave a customer a red-lipped smile. Taj could tell that her cousin was working her mojo to lure the customers in—Jess fairly glowed like dark fire in the afternoon light.

As she neared the stand, she heard the latest customer in line—a young human male with baggy jeans and a baseball cap facing the wrong way—brashly ask Jess for her phone number. Jess simply grinned and chirped “Of course!” before reeling off a string of numbers which he dutifully punched into his mobile. Taj’s lips involuntarily twitched. She recognized the phone number. It was for the local feminist intervention hotline.

A moment later, Jess looked up and waved her over. “Taj! Just the person I wanted to see! Hey Amy, could you take over for a sec?”

“Sure thing,” replied her business partner.

Taj met Jess on the other side of the counter where her cousin promptly shoved a paper plate containing four triangles of baklava layered meticulously with filo, nuts, and honey into her hands. “Eat,” Jess commanded.

“Is that all?” she replied, amused. She popped one piece of baklava into her mouth and slowly chewed. Jess and her partners viewed Taj as the perfect guinea pig due to her cast iron stomach. Nothing fazed her, not even evil souls. Taj, on the other hand, was perfectly fine with bumming off free delicious food from her relatives and friends. “Pistachio,” she finally said after swallowing. “And something flowery. It’s good.”

“Ed added in some rosewater,” Jess explained. “People will think it’s extra fancy so we can do a markup.”


“Exactly. We were also planning to make some for Auntie Bastet’s birthday party this Saturday.” But then Jess leaned closer as she ate another pastry. “So, what brings you here before lunch time? You almost never visit us before noon.”

“A case.” Taj glanced around to see if any of the humans were paying attention to them. They weren’t, but she didn’t take any chances. She lowered her voice to frequencies below human hearing and briefly summarized the situation with the shedu. “I lost the trail near here. I suspect it probably hopped on a bus to hide its tracks, but there’s a possibility it’s here in the market, too. If you see or sense anything weird, call me.”

Jess nodded. “I’ll call if there’s anything weird at the market. But if worse comes to worse, Ed, Amy, and I can take down a tank if we need to.”

“Jess, I’m not kidding. These are demons, not tanks. You’ll be foolish to think that…” Taj’s phone buzzed, interrupting her. She glanced down at the screen and involuntarily let out a sigh.

“Who is it?” her cousin asked. “Is it your boss, Mrs. Long? Does she have more information about the case?”

“No. It’s…my partner. Apparently he has more luck than I do. I need to go meet him to check out the latest lead.”

“Partner?” said Jess, confused. “I thought you worked alone.”

“I did. Mrs. Long put us both on the case.” She shoved her phone back into her jacket pocket. “Look, I’ve got to go. Your new baklava recipe has my approval. And before you ask, yes, I’ll be at Auntie Bastet’s birthday party if the city isn’t being wrecked by a bunch of homicidal demons in the meantime. I hope you don’t have any more questions.”

“Nope,” Jess smiled. “Just have fun and kick some demon butt!”

Taj only gave her cousin a tight smile in return. Judging from the text message that Ru sent her, fun was going to be the last thing she would be having.

Storm Chasers – Entry #1

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

Oh no.

The tips of Taj Ammit’s fingers itched, claws threatening to pop out as the sound of a motorcycle grew closer. She clenched her fists to hide her fingers in case her control snapped. It would not do to frighten Mr. Fitzwilliam, the human director of the Historical Art Museum. The white bearded suit was already nervously wiping his spectacles with a handkerchief as his gaze alternately darted between her and her boss, the coolly coiffed Dragon Queen, Vivian Long.

After another second, Fitzwilliam finally decided to keep his eyes on Vivian who appeared to be the least threatening. Vivian was very good with camouflage. Upon casual observation, the Dragon Queen was the stylish matriarch of one of the oldest and most influential families in the city in her navy pantsuit and gray-streaked hair pinned back in a bun. She had a sympathetic expression as Fitzwilliam continued babbling about the problem.

Taj, on the other hand, had a long rangy build. Pairing that with a leather jacket and boots made for stomping made her intimidating. Her refusal to wear contact lenses to disguise her not-quite-ordinary eyes didn’t help her image any. It wasn’t surprising that Fitzwilliam preferred to pretend that she wasn’t there.

“Why aren’t we going inside to look at the problem?” Taj asked, even as a sinking feeling told her the answer.

Vivian smiled serenely. “I thought having another pair of eyes would be helpful in this case.”

At her words, the motorcycle finally turned around the corner of the museum, revealing itself and its rider. The rider parked the motorcycle near the end of the loading dock and dismounted. The rider had not bothered with a protective jacket. He was a tall man in distressed jeans and worn boots. He wore a white t-shirt printed with the name of a local band. Curling abstract tattoos covered his tanned arms. And when he took off his helmet, Taj’s suspicions were confirmed as he shook out his shaggy dark hair. Damn thunderbird. Vivian knew that if Taj never saw him again, it would be too soon.

It was Vivian who introduced him as Rupert Thunder to the director who, despite a dubious look at their newest addition, quickly ushered them toward the back door of the museum that led to one of the storage rooms. It was a cool, climate controlled concrete space stacked with wooden crates of all sizes. Fitzwilliam and Vivian led the way, forcing her to walk beside him.

“I thought that last incident sent you back to Cairo,” he said lowly. “I guess you’re harder to kill than I thought.”

She glanced at him and found his lips curling into a smirk. Silently, she counted to three before saying, “Evil just makes me stronger.”

“Stronger? I thought eating all those evil souls was fattening.”

She felt the prick of claws against her skin. “It’s a pity that fire didn’t scar that pretty face. Girls prefer men with character.”

The curl of his mouth widened into a sharp-toothed grin. “Too bad for you, I’m immune to fire.”

They finally reached the end of the room. Fitzwilliam was babbling even worse than usual. It wasn’t hard to see why. At the foot of an ancient Mesopotamian statue of a bull with a man’s face was a body with its head smashed into a pulp. There was a bloody hoof trail leading away before vanishing into the nearest wall.

Vivian looked at the scene with a frown before turning back to Fitzwilliam to tell him to call the police. The Dragon Queen’s voice was quiet but infused with great power, making the hairs on the back of Taj’s neck stand up even though it wasn’t directed at her. The director’s babbling stopped and he nodded vigorously before scurrying away.

“What do you see?” Vivian asked when she turned to look at them.

Taj walked over to the body, careful not to step in any of the blood, and crouched. She reached out and saw the victim’s soul, a shivery golden wisp, gravitate toward her fingers. She snagged it and the traumatized soul, as light as a feather, pulsed against her skin. The soul transmitted a stream of images into her mind. She let out a shaky breath as she saw the victim’s last moments.

Shedu,” Ru said, breaking the silence. He wasn’t looking at her. Instead, he touched the statue and squinted at some faded cuneiform etched into the stone. “Storm demons. Several of them were released from their prison, this statue. I would guess the victim probably had the idiotic idea to break their bindings.”

She straightened from her crouch and released the soul to float out to the Great Beyond. “No. That’s not it. It’s not the victim’s fault. He was just an intern. He noticed some noises in this room and came in at the wrong time. Someone else broke the bindings before he was killed.”

Vivian narrowed her eyes as the voices and footsteps of the arriving cops interrupted their quiet contemplation. “We’ll find the individual who broke the bindings eventually. But right now, the shedu is the greatest threat to the city. Eliminating them will be the top priority, for both of you.”

Taj dared to glance at Ru. He gave her another smirk. Oh great. If she was unlucky, she’d manage to kill him before getting rid of any pesky demons.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 17

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16

The “What is Urban Fantasy?” panel was presented by Diana Pharaoh Frances and J.A. Pitts.

(Diana Pharaoh Francis [left] and J.A. Pitts [right])

DPF: I wrote about an ugly vampire who didn’t become pretty after being turned. So what is urban fantasy? A lot of it isn’t so urban now.

JAP: I think of Charles de Lint and Peter S. Beagle. Now paranormal romance has taken over. But urban fantasy has been around for a long time.

DPF: There’s also War of the Oaks.

JAP: Urban fantasy has something magical in the recognizable world. Like Buffy or Harry Potter.

DPF: Sunshine by Robin McKinley had a different world, but it was recognizable from the day-to-day actions. Urban fantasy has a quality in the present or maybe slightly in the future and has real kinds of places like grocery stores.

JAP: And cars. There’s crossover into romance and hard-boiled mystery. Like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. There are different flavors. Usually you don’t know until you read it. It’s also marketing.

DPF: There are many contemporary fantasies that are not urban. Lisa Shearin has real stuff in an epic fantasy situation. In Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts, it’s not usually urban even though it has cityscapes and is Victorian. There’s an unpacking of mystery.

JAP: If the characters enter a Starbucks, it’s probably urban fantasy. You also have to look at the attitude and morals of the characters. There’s a significant amount of women point of view in urban fantasy. You can see this from all the published books listed in Publishers Weekly.

AQ: Does epic fantasy have to be non-technological with swords and such?

DPF: In my epic fantasy series, I wrote that stuff so I knew it was epic. But you can put it in the present. But you need elements like big battles.

JAP: It’s how they categorize. If you don’t have most of those tropes, they won’t market it as urban fantasy. Christopher Moore is marketed as mainstream even though he has some of those elements. I write urban fantasy because I like it.

DPF: C.E. Murphy has an epic quality in her Shaman series even though it take place in the present day.

JAP: You should worry about your story before figuring out the genre. Don’t come to the wrong conclusion. It’s usually for the editor to decide.

AQ: Can you have an urban fantasy in a non-western setting? Why does everything take place in America?

JAP: It’s because that’s where all the Barnes and Nobles are. But you do see blogs that talk about books that are set outside the US.

DPF: Marjorie Liu is a world traveler and sets her books in different places.

JAP: If it’s not contemporary, they won’t market it as urban fantasy.

AQ: Kylie Chan, an author who lives in Hong Kong, does Chinese contemporary fantasy.

JAP: You need to search out stuff if you want stories outside of America.

AQ: What about Japanese manga getting imported to America?

JAP: Nick Mamatas blogs about it.

DPF: Lauren Beukes does South African fantasy. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. There are books out there so dig a little bit.

JAP: There are different types of urban fantasy, too. There’s some with alternate histories or hidden histories which don’t alter what we see.

AQ: How do you balance character, setting, and plot in urban fantasy? Is there not as much world building since it take place in the present day?

DPF: I would disagree with that.

JAP: Some people don’t, but I like to do world building.

DPF: You need to add the details to make it vibrant. It’s a different kind of world building. Sometimes it’s all action because readers are impatient. In urban fantasy, it’s very common to have a murder, crime, or major event on the first page. For epic fantasy, you can wait for that later. In urban fantasy, you do the world building at the same time as the action. But sometimes you need to stay focused on the forward motion and mention the details later.

JAP: The number one thing in urban fantasy is character. For the primary character, it’s all about the characterization.

AQ: If the characters go into a different dimension, is it still urban fantasy?

JAP: It depends if they come back.

DPF: In Ilona Andrews’ series The Edge, the characters can cross back and forth between the Broken and the Weird, ordinary and magical dimensions. In Wen Spencer’s Tinker and Wolf Who Rules, the characters go to an alternate plane and come back to Earth. It depends on how it’s handled.

JAP: Does the magic affect the real world? In Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, it doesn’t so it’s not urban fantasy.

AQ: What if you have a story where your character becomes a computer and then comes back?

JAP: That’s probably science fiction. Write it first and then let the editor decide.

AQ: In The Chronicles of Narnia, the characters came back from a magical world, but it’s not urban fantasy.

JAP: That’s a portal story.

AQ: In a lot of urban fantasy, either the character already knows about the magical world or the character is a normal person who finds out about the magical world. Are there challenges in writing either one?

DPF: My characters start out knowing about the magical world, but they have to tell everyone else about it.

JAP: Do you find it easier than the other way?

DPF: I don’t give my characters time to react, even if they don’t know anything about magic. They have to deal with things now and can’t waste time thinking about it. That’s why kick-ass heroines are common in urban fantasy. Because you need action right away. But there’s a danger in putting in an info dump with sidekicks.

JAP: My character doesn’t believe in magic. I find it difficult because of the info dump. It’s past the point of discovery.

AQ: I’ve gone to writing classes where they’ve told me never to write a particular thing. But I viewed it as a challenge.

JAP: Break the rules or it will be boring. My writing group found out there was an editor who didn’t want anyone submitting stories about babies, vampires, or cats. So we all wrote baby vampire cat stories and sent them in. He actually took one of the stories. But then the press went out of business. If you kill a dog, do you have to be the bad guy? You can do anything if you do it right. Don’t be afraid. Practice and write every day.

AQ: Is there a science fiction writer’s group in Missoula?

Panel: You might want to check with your local bookstore or library.

JAP: Look online for writer’s workshops.

AQ: Do you use existing mythologies or something made-up?

DPF: My stuff is mostly from existing mythologies. It’s about magical things that have disappeared. What happened to them? And if they came back, what would they be like? It’s a rich area and I can pick mythologies from all over the world. But there’s nothing wrong with making it up.

JAP: I use Norse mythology, but I screw with it. You can stick enough to it to recognize it, but don’t be afraid to twist it. Is it right for the story? If it’s boring, then don’t write it.

AQ: What about turning D & D gaming stories into novels?

JAP: Lots of editors don’t buy it because it reads like a gaming session. Write to the character.

DPF: In those stories, characters are way to thin.

JAP: Make sure it’s robust.

AQ: How would you categorize Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint? It reads like fantasy, but there’s no magic.

JAP: It sounds like it’s interstitial.

DPF: Kushner is part of the interstitial movement.

JAP: It’s fantastical but mundane.

DPF: You know it’s fantasy because of the Tom Canty cover. So maybe it’s a story of a magical place that is focused on the people who don’t do magic.

JAP: Where do they shelve it?

DPF: In fantasy.

AQ: Do you have modern good and bad guys in urban fantasy or are there strictly paranormal villains who have nothing to do with real life?

JAP: In the Dresden Files and urban fantasy in general, there’s a mixture of both.

DPF: My character has superpowers so she would easily defeat the ordinary bad guy. So you need a worthy opponent for your character. It’s not interesting if the characters aren’t challenged.

JAP: If there’s a big battle scene, people should die.

AQ: Do you bring in politics to urban fantasy?

JAP: It will date you. Don’t put in specific details to date it. You don’t have to say it to stay contemporary. Unless you want it to be specifically dated. But it’s good in a thriller. Otherwise, steer away from it.

DPF: I agree. You can have place things in the background. But current events will make it seem dated.

AQ: What if it’s based on science?

JAP: Then it’s probably science fiction. Write the story, then market it.

DPF: Read Subject 7 which has magical science and altered DNA.

AQ: It seems like 90% of the urban fantasy heroines are red-headed and wear PVC on the covers. How do you reconcile writing characters and marketing?

DPF: Writers don’t write characters that way. Marketing does it.

JAP: The cover is there to make you pick up the book.

DPF: My husband says that if they put 3D breasts on book covers, men will buy the books without knowing why.

JAP: In urban fantasy, there are women on the cover, but most women don’t pose like that.

DPF: You should check out Jim Hines’ blog where he poses like women on covers.

AQ: How do you write women? Isn’t it hard for a guy to do?

JAP: It’s not true. Women are people (most of the time). I had no men in my life until I was twelve. I trust women more so I write women. I did a lot of research and got an education on privilege, white male privilege. I had good insight from my experiences and good first readers. But it’s like that for all writers. No one writes about characters just like them–unless you’re doing an autobiography. I had fans who were shocked that a woman didn’t write my book.

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Stay tuned for the final part which is all about swords.