Oh, my. (I had to. I’m very sorry.)
So, lately you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a book chock-full of vampires. (Not being funny, but who *ever* came up with “dead cat” as a unit of measure?) Fantasy started undergoing a resurgence, I think – or a surgence, maybe, because I don’t know if there was anything “re” about it – around the time of the LotR movies. Then came Harry Potter, and boom – it seemed like everyone was coming out with wizard-based stories for kids. Then, of course, Twilight came along (2005), and suddenly every other book was a contemporary, often urban fantasy where vampires and werewolves etc. etc. exist in a sort of side-by reality, unbeknownst to everyone not tied to that reality in some way. (Someday if I ever bother to read anything beyond Twilight, or if I bother to reread it, I might explore that worn topic. Or not.)
The series that’s been around longest – since before Twilight, certainly (the short-lived TV series came and went before that came out) – is The Dresden Files (starting in 2001). I remember someone on The Board Which Shall Be Nameless, or one of the offshoots from it, going on about how no, seriously, you MUST read the Dresden Files. He was right. They’re truly wonderful books. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard (listed in the Yellow Pages as such) in a slightly alternate Chicago – slightly alternate in that it’s pretty much the one that exists, except for that additional reality of magic. They’re first-person narratives, and Harry is a near-perfect companion. He’s a Good Guy, consciously and unconsciously; he’s had plenty of opportunity to be otherwise, and in fact is expected on many occasions to be otherwise, and is aggressively gleeful about being able to prove himself. And bitterly resentful and offended when those negative expectations crop up. He’s not perfect – and never will be, and doesn’t try to be: he tries to be the best friend and wizard and overall human being that he can be. Harry is chivalrous to a fault – and if it is a fault it’s not one of the ones he aims to work on correcting. Crimes against innocents bother him, deeply. Crimes against women or children drive him mad. He has high standards for himself, though he’s a bit more forgiving of his friends, and I love him dearly. Wikipedia says that there will be at least two more – long may they wave. I hope Jim Butcher writes Harry Dresden novels till both of them are old and grey (and for Harry that will take a long, long time).
(Oh my – I see that the audio novels are read by James Marsters. I Want. And I don’t do audio books.)
I had read a couple some time back, and have gotten my hands on more since. Not too long ago I started at the beginning and worked my way through to Dead Beat. There was a gap during which I went on eBay for the next two and had to wait a small eternity for Proven Guilty and White Night, during which time I started the Deryni series; I finally made it through most of that (as much as I choose to wade through right now) and went back to the new-to-me Dresdens. They impress me. The writing is compelling – not easy to put down, and wrenching when the book’s finished and there isn’t another one to pick up right away. It’s funny – sometimes laugh-out-loud funny (early in the first book, Fool Moon, there’s a glancing blow at LotR which was a lot funnier when I was in the throes of The Board Which etc., but which is still a thing of beauty); it’s moving – I care, a lot, what happens to Harry, and to his entire team, from Bob to Murphy (and probably especially Mouse). Butcher hit below the belt at one point in White Night, talking about pain, and it was just a little too relevant to my life as of late; I had to put it aside for a bit. (For the record, for anyone keeping score, I didn’t go to the NYRF.) And when I read the line about how you just don’t leave a friend in pain all alone, I had to close it and put it down; I know of several people I would love to send that to. Set out in six-inch high calligraphy. Framed. Anyway. It’s good stuff; Harry and his folk are good people. They’re real, rounded, unpredictable because they’re growing all the time, changing as events and circumstances change them. The writing is conversational, intelligent, deceptively deep. I love every page. Butcher has another series, more sword and sorcery (though there’s plenty of both in Chicago), and I’m looking forward to it.
Aha!! I’ve been kvetching because none of the books credit the cover artist. I hate that. I don’t understand that. What is the point of not giving the artist credit? Does he get paid less? Or more? Is it a lack of respect for the artist? Which is pretty funny considering that, especially in the fantasy genre, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is often hooey – sure you can. If a book’s got a cover by Larry Elmore, odds are pretty good that it may be based on a role-playing or video game; if it isn’t it’s in a similar vein. If the cover’s by John Jude Palencar, you can probably expect something with a dark vein running through it, and I think it means the publisher has some respect for the manuscript. Frequently, if the cover isn’t something you want to be seen holding in public, the book is not one you want to try to explain to a ‘Dane. But I digress. On the Dresden Files page of Wikipedia, where I went for dates, the list of external links includes: Christian McGrath — Series cover artist. Woohoo! *click* Damn. As if I didn’t know already from the covers, he’s goooooood.
A second series which fits neatly into the same pigeonhole as the tales of Harry Dresden, and yet which is totally unique, is Patricia Briggs’s Mercedes Thompson books. Again, they predate Twilight; it’s like the Crimson Pirates at the NYRF, who were pirates before Pirates of the Caribbean made pirates cool. Where in the Dresden Files the vampires are mostly on the opposite side and the werewolves are secondary characters in the first several books, Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson was raised by werewolves, is (possibly) in love with two alpha males, and has a good friend who is, improbably, a vampire. Again, it’s first person – but Mercy is an auto mechanic in the Tri-Cities of Washington (state), who just happens to be able to turn, at will, into a coyote. She would get along very well with Harry, I think, or they would kill each other – one of those. I’ve loved Patricia Briggs’s work for a while now, since picking up Hob’s Bargain; she has, like Butcher, such a deceptively light touch that you don’t necessarily realize how deep the writing’s gone into you until later. Like Harry and co., Mercy and her “family” have come to mean a lot to me. Like the Dresden Files, the books are beautifully written, funny and painful and moving by turns. The characters are real and imperfect, and grow and change. They’re certainly not carbon copies of Jim Butcher’s work; they feel similar mainly because of the intimate first-person narration, the excellence of the writing, the passion of the characters, and the basic rules of the two unique universes. I love Briggs. I love these books.
And then there’s T.A. Pratt, and her series about Marla someone – Mason? Every now and then I take a chance at Books & Company, the nearest used bookstore. It paid off, in a big way, with Kate Ross years ago: I saw four books that looked intriguing by an author I didn’t know, and debated whether I should pick up all four at once, or take one, try it, and risk the others not being there when I went back. I took all four, and was very glad I did. Well, lately, the gamble hasn’t paid off so well. I saw four books by Pratt waiting to be shelved, and fell for the covers, by Dan Dos Santos. They’re beautiful, especially the one for Poison Sleep. Pity the books aren’t. (Which just goes to prove – you can’t ALWAYS tell a book by its cover…) I finished White Night this morning, and picked up Pratt’s Blood Engines in hopes of keeping in the same subgenre – 21st century-set alternate here-and-now urban fantasy. Well, that’s what these are, I suppose, but there all resemblance to either Harry Dresden or Mercy Thompson ends. I only made it a couple of chapters, and had to stop. First to raise flags was the language. I’ve read all sorts of books; I saw Pulp Fiction; I have been known to swear like the proverbial sailor when I feel it’s warranted. There’s swearing in the Dresden books, and in plenty of others that I love. But there’s a quote out there somewhere about swearing being a sign of a limited imagination, and in this case it feels true. On the first page the writer tosses out something about piss (a vulgarity more than a curse), and she used the word at least a couple more times in just the few pages I read. Really? That’s necessary? “Urine” too many letters for you? Bodily functions apparently are uppermost in the writer’s mind, because they take a prominent place in the writing, in pungent Anglo-Saxon.
Worse, though, much worse, is the rapid descent from the heights of Harry Dresden’s chivalry I suffered when I ventured into this … stuff. Marla (not a name I liked, happily – I knew a Marla once) and sidekick – mostly unidentified, his actual position in her evident organization undefined as of when I quit – venture into a shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Now, by the time they set foot in the place, the female character has already shown herself to be callous, arrogant, and deeply egocentric, and has – probably loudly, and certainly crankily – expressed several shades of distaste for San Francisco for the simple fact that it is not under her control. Also, she apparently has a gift for divination using animal entrails (haruspicy, I think), and wonders where she can get hold of a live chicken or cat. Charmed, I’m sure. I’m not a cat-lover. I raised an eyebrow. I kept going. One reason she needs an accurate divination is that she’s looking for someone and/or something to help her protect herself from someone making a power play back home. And she ponders how she would have killed the rival years ago, but something (not conscience or morals) stopped her. So, into the shop, where they meet what appears to be a fairly stereotypical elderly Chinese man and his young female apprentice. Except that the old man whispers to the sidekick that he’s actually the apprentice, and the old man has forced a body switch – he took hers, and will kill her (in his) if he finds out she told anyone. The book then spends a little time talking about how evil and terrible a thing this is. And then Marla and friend exit the place. They don’t care. They’re busy. Mm, yeah – neither do I, and so am I.
The story-telling annoyed me. It felt like a couple of chapters of plot exposition had been left out. Who is this woman? What does she mean she “runs” that city, and where is it supposed to be? Who is the man with her, and the one left home supposedly dealing with or sleeping with the enemy, why is the other person an enemy (well, really, why not?), and – most importantly – why should I care about any of it? These books are third-person narration, and I’m glad, because I emphatically would not want to be inside this character’s head; I’m grateful to have been spared that. I (obviously) took a violent aversion to that first book – I can’t wait to get them out of the house and back to Books & Co.
Happily, another chance I took (though not to the same level of commitment) at B&C was well worth it. Charlaine Harris is someone I’ve heard of here and there, and never read till today. I picked up the first book of one of her series (she seems to have several, which – yay) a little while ago (shelved in Mystery, these), and turned to it when that other thing went bad. I’m nearly finished with Grave Sight, and I will need to get somewhere for all the rest of the books, soon. No vampires here, nor were-anything (though they feature prominently in her other books, I think); Harper Connelly was struck by lightning when she was in her teens, and ever since, in addition to headaches and weakness in her right leg, she can sense the dead nearby. She has created a career out of using this sense, and it leads her into some strange – and dangerous – places… I’ll give the book and its sequels more time when it isn’t a Sunday at midnight, but suffice to say I’m very grateful to Ms. Harris. I had a very bad taste in my head, and it was a true pleasure washing it away in the company of Harper and her brother. First-person narrative, unabashedly revealing, good characters … *phew* She’s prolific, I’m glad to see. I hope the rest stack up.
(Hey! I didn’t know the series on HBO (True Blood) was based on the Sookie Stackhouse books! Cool. And Anna Paquin. Also cool. Something to look forward to (on dvd).)
Now, why couldn’t I have bought four of this series instead?
In looking up the word for divination-by-guts, I came across something called onychomancy: divination from how sunlight is reflected off fingernails. Huh. Intrigued, I Goodsearched, and wound up back on Wikipedia, and it’s even more fascinating: “It consists of watching the reflection of sunlight on the oiled fingernails of an unpolluted boy, then interpreting the symbols that appear.” Seriously? I want so badly to incorporate this into something I write. It won’t fit into anything I write. I want to write something just so that I can have someone practice it.
ETA: TS Pratt is apparently not a “she” – he’s Tim Pratt. Sorry…