by Paula Gail Benson
I’m a great admirer of Charlaine Harris, Toni L.P. Kelner, and Dana Cameron, who all have seamlessly shifted between traditional mysteries and paranormal mysteries (as well as novels and short stories for each genre). I find it fascinating to delve into the worlds of creatures who coexist with humans, yet have their own infrastructure.
Maybe dipping back into mythology earlier this summer with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and Circe was a good precursor for some paranormal reading. Also, I have to admit being intrigued when a work colleague read a recent short story I’d written and said it reminded her of Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City (2013). My colleague was kind to share her copy and I found myself immersed in a familiar, yet very unique Big Apple.
Looking at the cover of the Shambling Guide gives you a flavor of what you’ll be encountering. It shows a young woman walking along a city street and passing by a man with a tail, a monster perched on the hood of a cab, and a skyscraper with a dragon at the uppermost tower. The book’s structure intersperses segments from a city guidebook with episodes in the young woman’s life.
Mur Lafferty’s protagonist, Zoe, shares some of the author’s own background. Mur, from Durham, NC, is both a podcaster (I Should Be Writing) and award winning and nominated science fiction writer. Zoe has left a great job in a Raleigh, NC, travel publishing company (after a horrendous affair with her boss) and is trying to re-establish herself in NYC. When Zoe sees a description of an editorial position that seems tailor-made for her, she wonders why the people involved with the company encourage her not to apply. Stubbornly, she submits a proposal and is given the opportunity, which means she’ll be writing a guidebook to New York aimed at “coterie,” or vampires, zombies, dragons, sprites, fairies, death goddesses, succubi and incubi, and similar creatures. The primary reason Zoe has been warned against applying for the position is that the office is staffed with vampires, zombies, and an incubus, who consider her food. Also, the new CR (Coterie Resources) employee is a “construct” (golem or created monster, like the one in Frankenstein) who has the head of one of Zoe’s ex-boyfriends.
Zoe’s story begins as adventure, very much like Alice slipping down the rabbit hole, but it quickly becomes a thriller where Zoe, with her blunt approach to all things coterie, has to save the city itself from a rogue “zoetist” (a person who gives life to inanimate objects, like Dr. Frankenstein). In explaining zoetists and their constructs, Mur brings many different folklore traditions to the narrative, meshing them together in a manner that is both believable and informative.
At first, I wondered if the excerpts from the guidebook would be distracting from Zoe’s story. Instead, I found they enhanced and broadened it, introducing background in a manner that did not intrude upon and sometimes foreshadowed the action. Reading the Amazon reader comments, I noticed one person expressed a desire for the entire guidebook. Another commenter suggested that Mur’s book was about tolerance. I agree. The characters in the book all had many fundamental differences, but found ways to work together for the greater good.
I have to admit I've ordered the second book in the series, Ghost Train to New Orleans (2014), maybe as much from hearing about Shari Randall’s journey there as well as anticipating what Zoe and her staff will encounter as they write a supernatural tour guide for the Big Easy. The vicarious travel to both the cities and the paranormal world makes for some delightful vacation reading.