Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

A travel writer takes a job with a shady publishing company in New York, only to find that she must write a guide to the city - for the undead!

I've been a fan of Mur Lafferty's podcast, I Should Be Writing, for a while now, I've listened to her Marco and the Red Granny and Playing For Keeps (both available on Podiobooks), and was very excited when she sold her first book to a publisher. Mur loves her fans, so one of the things she did was podcast her book for free. We're on an extremely tight budget right now, so although I wanted to buy the book I had to listen to the podcast and console myself that I would buy the sequel.
The best thing about The Shambling Guide is that it's fun and fast-paced, and the main characters are colorful and engaging. I particularly liked Morgen the water sprite and the baker at the cafe, they stole the show at least half the time for me. There was snappy dialogue, descriptions that set the scene just enough without taking away the readers' ability to fill in some details on their own, and enough humor to make me chuckle on a number of occasions. I had a blast listening to it. Of course having the author read the book is an extra bonus because they put the emphasis where they want it to be, and the whole experience feels more intimate than when there's a professional voice actor in the picture.
Lafferty's world-building skills deserve a special mention. There are zombies, vampires, golums, all of which roughly follow the traditional lore of being dangerous creatures, but the author has made them her own and humanized them along the way. Of course this happens when you are looking at them from inside their world and witness their weaknesses and their struggles to make it in a world where nobody's supposed to know about them.
There's a lot to recommend this book, yet there was enough that didn't work for me to spoil the experience. Some characters came to life and some were pretty flat. Take Arthur the love interest, he was just a generic hot guy with a bunch of preconceived notions. The protagonist, Zoë, is too comfortable too soon in her new job and with her co-workers. Yeah, the pay is good and she needed the job, but she is almost blasé when it comes to the world of monsters where she suddenly finds herself. Would you be totally cool if you found out that your boss is a vampire (not vegetarian either) and that every one of your coworkers can kill you without exerting themselves too much? I know I wouldn't.
There was a sex scene, which, although well-executed, didn't have to be there and didn't really do anything to move the story forward or develop any of the characters. (For fairness' sake I do have to admit that this is my usual complaint about sex scenes, and unless the book is a romance I'd rather authors kept them out of the story. After all, what exactly has to happen between the sheets to serve the story or character development? Off the top of my head, not too many options there.) The mystery at the center of the story was interesting and I was surprised to find out who the villain was, but there was so much going on during the final battle that frankly I lost track of it all and just waited for it to be over. If it was a paper book I would've skimmed the pages and gotten to the end. All in all I thought her shorter works were tighter and therefore more effective, the novel format allowed for too much room for digression.
The Shambling Guide is a fun read and if you've had a stressful stretch it's just the thing to get your mind off the problems. Get the audio book to give you a charge for the work day or to help you unwind during your commute in the evening. It's not great, but for all its faults it is good enough to make me want to pick up the sequel, Ghost Train to New Orleans, and to hope that there will be a third book. After all, I believe writers get better with every new novel. Unless their work becomes formulaic, but that's a topic for another time.

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