Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Ghost Train to New Orleans (The Shambling Guides #2) by Mur Lafferty

When Zoe Norris took a job editing a travel guide for the coterie, a world that she had no idea even existed opened up to her.  During editing the travel guide to New York City,  Zoe learned that she is a city tallker, an actually a member of the coterie herself.  Now that she has been tasked to write a travel guide to New Orleans - the most coterie friendly city in the world, things should be easier because at least now she has some idea of the hidden world.  As with everything in Zoe's life, despite her best intentions, things get complicated quickly and she finds herself searching for an antidote to stall the zombie bite of her boyfriend Arthur and fighting off a dark zoetist who has discovered the true power of the citytalkers.

One of the most irritating things about The Shambling Guide to New York was the fact that Lafferty constantly pulled the reader away from the plot to give information on the travel guide Zoe was putting together.  I am happy to report that while we did have occasional asides including passages from the New Orleans guide, they seemed far more related to the story, even if they didn't help at all to really move the plot along.  I still could have done without them altogether but assume that Lafferty continues to include them to remind the reader that while Zoe is on a really wild adventure, she is still in the process of putting together a book.  I am still however certain that as a device, the travel book is a distraction and a hindrance over all. 

The Ghost Train to New Orleans is 352 pages long and it felt like it went on forever.  Part of the problem is that the focus of the story itself was really rather weak.  Zoe didn't reall have a direction, she just moved from one disaster to another.  At times, I felt my eyes wandering off the page and it became a struggle to read.  The jokes that Lafferty included fell short for the most part, thus not adding any really distraction from the meandering plot.

I really did appreciate how strongly Lafferty evoked New Orleans in her writing.  We got a sense of its wonderful culture through the discussion of things like the cemeteries, jazz and of course the food.  I liked that when Lafferty invoked Voodoo (something that normally in this genre is a hot mess) it didn't suddenly become reductive or symbolic of Black people's woo per say.  We got the sense that Voodoo is strong and is to be respected along with all other belief systems.  I must say that it surprise me. 

Thanks to the story being set in New Orleans, Lafferty could not outright exclude people of colour.  It is however worth noting that while Zoe, the protagonist, seemed to know quite a bit about European mythology but next to nothing about African mythology. To me it read as though Lafferty could not be bothered to do any research.  It wasn't helped by the fact that Black God of disease wasn't even properly named, though we were given a weak explanation as to why.

Despite the large battle to save New York, Zoe has not grown much.  She is still absolutely filled with spunky agency, rushing into dangerous situations without a plan of how to proceed, let alone how to exit safely if she needs to.  This is constantly lampooned by the other characters in the book.  Part of Zoe's problem is that she doesn't know who to trust and she certainly doesn't know anything about the history of her people but instead of finding a way to actively research, Zoe constantly lets her guard down at times when she really she should be cautious. Zoe also spends too much time crying and at one point laments about the fact that the goddesses and fae are more beautiful than her.  I really could have done without the angst.  At this point, I am waiting for Zoe to turn into a half way likable character. 

All of the female characters were strong and The Ghost Train to New Orleans easily passed the Bechdel Test.  Each character had a very distinct personality and limitations based in their coterie identity.  The women in fact outnumbered the male characters without descending into well known tropes we can all do without. 

The two GLBT characters in this series were  on "vacation" during this book, which is a nice way for the writer to say that she dumped them into the plot box.  We did however get a lot of appropriation of GLBT specific language with Zoe complaining about being "outed" each time someone revealed her secret.  Why is it that authors can use the languages of the marginalized but just cannot seem to include them in their stories?

For all of the negative that I have said about The Ghost Train to New Orleans, it is still an improvement on the first novel in this series. However, I have yet to be sold by the concept or embrace the protagonist in a meaningful way.  This series feels like it is on the cusp of something good, if it could just settle down and pick a direction.

Editor's Note: a copy of this book was received from Netgalley