Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Shambling Guide to New York City (The Shambling Guides #1) by Mur Lafferty

Zoe moves to New York City to find work, after being forced to leave her old job, after being seduced by her very married boss into having an affair.  Like many job hunters, Zoe is getting the run around in that she is constantly either being told that she is either too experienced or does not have enough experience.  Having worked in publishing writing tour guides, Zoe decides to answer an advertisement for a new editor that she sees hanging in a coffee shop.  What she does not know is that interview is the first step to her involvement with the coterie.

Zoe goes from being an ordinary and mundane, to working with death goddesses, water sprites, zombies, constructs, inccubi, succubi and vampires.  Learning the rules of the supernatural community is a hard thing but Zoe is forced to speed her learning curve along when it becomes clear that someone is out to get her.  It begins with a construct with her ex boyfriends head and zombies running amok and killing people.

At first blanch I really thought that the Shambling Guide to New York City was a book that held a lot of potential.  It has a really unique premise and has a menagerie of supernatural characters; however, these factors alone do not a good book make. Mur included a lot of unnecessary problematic language in the book; in many ways it felt like Mur was trying to include social justice issues but just couldn't.

Zoe was told repeatedly that she might not fit in with her job because she was human. She defends her ability to fit in saying, "I don't care if Underground Publishing is catering to eastern Europeans, or transsexuals, or Eskimos or even Republicans. Just because I don't fit in doesn't mean I can't be accepting as long as they accept me."  Gee how progressive of her.  Also, who uses the word Eskimos anymore?  Then there is the use of the word transsexuals.  It's just a throw away offensive term because she sees them as weird.  Mur doesn't even have a trans character in the novel.

The Shambling Guide to New York City is yet another in a long line of books which has the supernaturals filling in for marginalized people. When Zoe uses the term monsters to refer to the supernaturals that she is working with, she is told, "'Monsters' is pejorative. Nonhumans go by the term 'coterie.'"  There are real marginalized people in this story but somehow they are never stigmatized based in their marginalizations.  Homeless people for instance must face classism on a daily basis but Mur has turned homeless people into undercover agents.
"Public Works agent" Josh said. "most homeless, and some gangs, work as spies.|"

"Yeah," Morgen said."They're ubiquitous and ignored, and if they talk about zombies eating a guy, people think they're insane so if there's ever a security breach, no one believes them anyway."
Right. So the homeless aren't really homeless and suffering. The predatory nature of the capitalist system which keeps so many impoverished, is all sham, so that humans can keep an eye on monsters, uh excuse me coterie (wouldn't want to be accused of being insensitive).

Then there's the appropriation.  The only coterie who really face marginalization of course are the ones who are Middle Eastern in origin.  Mur appropriates what happened on 9/11.  If ever there should be a day in history that's left alone, it's that one.  I understand the necessity of including real world events to make a book plausible, for instance, if you set a book New Orleans, you must mention Katrina.  There are ways to approach this that are sensitive to what happened and in fact, this is one of the few things Charlaine Harris got right in her Sookie Stackhouse books. 
"First there was the ifrit and djinn hunting. Any coterie with Arab or Muslim origins were hunted down, as Public Works became convinced that the terrorist attacks were too well orchestrated to be pulled off by hmans alone.  The ifrit and djinn were rounded up and interrogated, and some disappeared. Coterie investigators tracked some to a closed-off area of Guantanamo Bay, but others simply disappeared and, as of this writing, are assumed dead.

This was a dark day for the city's coterie, as war with Public Works threatened.  It was averted when a group of ifrit from New Jersey traveled back to the Middle East and dug up information about the attacks, sending proof back to Public Works that they were a human job.  Public Works never fully believed coteri hadn't been involved - a the very least, it assumed gremlins had been hired to take over the planes - and tensions have been high since."
Is Mur even aware that secret extraditions occurred and real people were tortured?  Has she thought about how these disappearances and deaths have haunted and destroyed family? What about the fact that there are still prisoners being held without trial in GITMO, or the fact that even as I write this, they are engaged in a hunger strike?  Her inclusion of these details feels like just another fun anecdote in The Shambling Guide to New York City.

There are two GLBT characters in The Shambling Guide to New York City but don't get excited.  One is an incubus who feeds off the people who come to his bakery.  Thankfully, he is not as predatory as the straight incubus John, but he still feeds off of unsuspecting male customers.  The other is a succubus and a lesbian but we don't really learn much about her and her feeding habits.  It's all quite mundane however because sexuality isn't a problem in New York City.  This is news to me and probably every single gay and lesbian living and working there.
It's already hard to exist in the city as the most hated minority of all, so one would expect the auto-sexual, homosexual, pansexual, and budding coterie to have an even tougher time of it.  But many humans may find it surprising that there's very little prejudice in New York.  The coterie work hard to maintain balance in their associations with the humans, so much so that the sexuality of coterie rarely enters into any equation.

Please know that New York is rare in this respect.  Places such as Columbia, SC, are completely intolerant to any coterie but the heterosexual, and on the flip side, Las Vegas, NV, and Celebration, FL, will accept only gay coterie  Alternatively, Santa Monica, CA, will accept only fae who bud, and the town forbids coterie sex entirely.
I normally note the fails in any book that I am reading but found that The Shambling Guide to New York City was absolutely laced with it.  At times, it made it difficult to get through the book.  If the story itself had been more compelling, perhaps the social justice fails would not have felt so irritating.

There's also Zoe the protagonist and the constant shaming when it comes to sex.  Anytime that Zoe is aroused, she blushes and looks away making her demure and irritating.  She's almost raped by John and though she consents, it's because of he is using his power as an incubus against her.  Where is her anger at what occurred?  What woman who is almost raped simply lets the incident go? John even defends what he did by saying that Zoe consented.  Mur could have made this a lot more clear by having Zoe get angry, rather than learning tricks like not making eye contact to avoid arousal.

Throughout The Shambling Guide to New York City, the story gets broken up to give us excerpts from the book that Zoe is writing.  This completely breaks up the story, giving it an extreme lack of cohesion. I know that this was a device for world building but it simply did not work and became irritating very quickly. I wanted to like this book but much like the cover suggests, it's just a cartoon masquerading as a serious story.