Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy, Book 1 of the Walker Papers

Joanne Walker - or Siobhan Walkingstick - is a rational woman. A sensible woman, a practical mechanic, she has very little to do with woo-woo of any kind and seems to have developed and aversion to it.  Along with shunning anything paranormal, Joanne spends much of her life running from her past, and this includes her heritage as an Indigenous woman.

And then, after feeling a desperate urge to save a woman she saw fleeing for her life from a plane, (can we just pause for a moment and say how ridiculous this is, there’s suspending belief, and then there’s stupidity) she has a near death experience at the hands of an ancient Celtic god, before putting herself together at the instructions of Coyote.

At this point, it became much much harder to ignore magic and the fantastic. Not least of which because ancient Celtic gods and demi-gods are now killing people and Joanne maybe the only person who can stop them.

There are some huge positive elements to this book. The story is nicely paced and fun with plenty of interesting twists and turns as Joanna tracks down her adversaries - after figuring out exactly what they are and what they’re doing. And, for that matter, who is doing what and who they actual enemy is. It’s knotty, it twists and there are many points in the book where I didn’t know where we were going or why - it’s nice to have some unpredictability, especially in a mystery. All in all, I managed to read the book cover to cover only stopping when forced to - I didn’t want to put it down, I didn’t want to stop reading. It made me smile and it made me curious - a very nice combination if you can pull it off - and it didn’t make me bored at all.

The way the magic is handled is interesting and nicely described. It makes me want to learn a lot more and to figure out where the parameters are. I do wish we’d actually had some cultural references for the magic, rather than just the descriptions, but still it’s a nice, rather unique system that I very much want to see more of. I love her emphasis on healing - even when it comes to hunting down a killer, it’s all about healing and a magical drive to heal and help people. I also like the blending of both Celtic and Native American traditions, it has a great deal of potential but it could certainly do to be developed more.

I’m curious about the world and how accepting everyone is of the fantastic. How so many of the police around Joanne see her magic and kind of accept it. But then, I can see the dynamic - after all, if you live in a world were magic is real, you’re going to have more people with experiences who are willing to believe it. And police are a group who are highly likely to be exposed to the shadowy corners of the world.

I’m also quite impressed that there didn’t appear to be any kind of romance (albeit a couple of budding ones). not that I’m against their being a romance, but by the signs of it we’re not going to be fast-tracked into a hurried, rather convoluted romance that consumes the story as is so often the case

The characters also interact extremely well. Joanne’s banter with Gary is hilarious and they have a real, powerful friendship even if it did come about quickly. Joanne bounces off her colleagues in the police station extremely well. I do love that in a story - powerful personal relationships and great, natural interaction

The story did rest on a rather dubious beginning which was more than a little shaky. It’s not a very realistic way to start the story. For that matter, the idea that you need to be a police office to fix their cars doesn’t strike me as very reasonable. Sadly, I also got entirely lost a couple of times. I just couldn’t figure out how we got where we were and why and I ended up just kind of blinking and struggling to jump back onto the story again. The magical description stopped me following the actual action.

I do like Joanne as a character. She’s funny, she’s independent, except for the very beginning shakiness she is rather lacking in Spunkiness. Her decisions are surreal, but then it’s a surreal situation. She does open up to the people around her, her work colleagues, awfully quickly expecting them to take it on faith what she’s saying no matter how ridiculous it sounds. She is, perhaps, unnecessarily antagonistic, especially with her boss.

Joanne is another mixed race protagonist who is as pale as possible and nearly completely lacking in Native American culture. At least, in this book, the protagonist has a reason for the ignorance of her past (but, again, the idea she is ostracised for being too pale sits poorly), but a greater exploration and acknowledgement would have been preferable. As it stands, there’s that unpleasant sense that her heritage is there as, primarily, a justification for the magic she has. I hope we could expand further into her Native heritage in future books, especially since we had some exploration of her Irish ancestry. So far it’s not great, but it could be improved a lot by the next book. I’m not sure how much faith I have that it will be.

For other POC we don’t have a lot, a minor Latina character who looks like she could be interesting, if she plays a greater role, and a couple of bit parts. I’m not happy with the casual references to people thinking she’s crazy, which we get a lot of in this book, as she speaks to each person about her magic and the magical world. We also have a surprisingly good representation of older people - Gary is clearly an older man and is awesome throughout the book, we also have an older woman as a heroic teacher who saves the students. It is very rare to see any depictions of older people in the genre, certainly not as active, capable action people. There are no GBLT people at all.

We do have some references to class that acknowledge the divide at least - seeing how rich the high school is compared to what she grew up with, considering the poor neighbourhood she flew over alongside the rich ones. They’re an acknowledgement, if not quite and actual comment. There’s also a couple of nice moments where Joanne squelches stereotypes and “humour” firmly, but I don’t think she sustains it very well and I’m not sure it’s presented as her being rightly annoyed as much as her being unnecessarily petty.

All in all, I enjoyed this book a lot. And I feel this series has vast potential and is a great introduction to an intriguing main character and an interesting world. The story made me think I’m going to enjoy reading whatever else the author has written, though it had its shaky moments. It has issues, that’s certainly true, but I think a lot of those can be rescued with a good second book that fills in some of the gaps and the representation and in Joanne’s history and culture. All in all, would be happy to read again and look forward to fitting book 2 into my schedule.