The hero of Mur Lafferty's Shambling Guide to New York doesn't wear tight pants, tote a crossbow, or have the most special power ever. She doesn't fall in love with any magical creatures, or have everybody smitten with her. She's just a travel book editor trying to finish her supernatural guidebook on time, and we love her.
The Shambling Guide to New York City is the debut novel from Lafferty, who's best known for her I Should Be Writing Podcast, and her work on other major SF podcasts. Here, she brings the same wry humor to the story of a woman trying to make it in the big city.
And she takes the same approach to urban fantasy as Cassie Alexander's Nightshifted novels and some other recent books: Instead of telling the story of a detective or epic hero, she's focusing on an ordinary person who's just trying to hold down a job in a world of magic. In Nightshifted, we follow a nurse who looks after supernatural creatures. Here, Zoe is just trying to create a New York guidebook for the creatures that go bump in the night (or in many cases, in the middle of the day.)
So in Shambling Guide, Zoe has just moved to New York from Raleigh, after a disastrous affair with her boss who turned out to be married. To a psychotic cop. She desperately needs a job, and when she sees that a publishing company is advertising for a managing editor, she's determined to get the job no matter what — even when they try to discriminate against her on the grounds of being human. Soon, she's trying to make her way in the world of "coterie," or supernatural beings, including nightclubs, S&M dungeons and other strange haunts.
As such, Shambling Guide is a mash-up of the workplace comedy and the standard urban fantasy "saving the world" type stuff. And yes, it's sort of an uneasy mix, especially in the second half of the book when the world-saving (somewhat understandably) overwhelms the plot stuff and there's a lot of running around and action-adventuring.
But luckily, the character of Zoe has a strong enough voice, and a winning enough personality, to carry the book along and maintain a sense of focus. She's seriously the kind of heroine we need more of in urban fantasy: smart and resourceful, but not invulnerable. She tries to keep focused on her actual paying job, while zombies are going on a rampage and golems are tearing everything up.
And Lafferty makes an interesting choice, having Zoe come to New York fleeing a workplace romance that went horribly wrong. The natural choice for a workplace comedy like Shambling would be to have her fall in love with one of the mysterious dark creatures she works with — maybe her studly vampire boss, Phil. Or the seductive but dangerous incubus, John. Or even the cute water sprite Morgen.
But because Zoe just got burned by a romance with her boss, she's actually super wary of any entanglements with her coworkers — and their supernatural dangers become a sort of metaphor for all the terrible things that can happen when you hook up at work. Her coworkers can literally destroy her if she gets too close to them, andthis makes them both more seductive (especially in the case of John) and more horrible.
The book is also at its best when it's actually about the city, as a real place where people (and creatures) live and play — the process of putting together a guidebook provides a great way to explore the central idea of urban fantasy: that cities are places where the strange and rejected can find places to belong and get what they need. Urban fantasy, as a genre, has some of the most interesting things to say about cities, and the notion of an urban fantasy series about a guidebook editor is genius.
The whole thing does somewhat fall down towards the end, particularly as the novel's big bad is revealed and turns out to be someone who ties all the strands together a bit too neatly. (To the point where the main character even points out how tidy this is, at one point.) But by then, you're already completely on board with this series, and this main character. Because Lafferty has succeeded in creating a main character who's something better than a half-vampire, half-elf princess: a regular human who comes into a world of mysterious creatures and keeps her head about her, because she's got a job to do.