Thu
Aug 18 2011 9:16am
Variety is the Spice of World-building: A Review of Kitty’s Greatest Hits by Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s newest book, Kitty’s Greatest Hits, is the first short story collection set in her popular Kitty Norville series—an urban fantasy world where the paranormal has come out of the closet thanks in part to the lead character’s late-night radio show relating to the supernatural—and collects stories published over the past five years in the universe, plus two previously-unpublished tales, one of which is a novella about a major character who was off the screen for awhile thanks to a prison sentence.

I’m a fan of the Kitty Norville novels; they’re one of the few urban fantasy series I’ve seen that deals explicitly with abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery from the eyes of a woman who begins the book in a violent, unsupportive relationship and over the course of the series grows into the alpha of her pack and a force to be reckoned with in the mundane world and the supernatural—again, thanks in part to that radio show, which is another unique touch.

On the other hand, liking a series doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy a short story collection related to it—to the contrary, I tend to dislike them. Series-related collections, especially in urban fantasy, can feel repetitive and bland thanks to too much exposure to the same narrator and the same plot-devices making the stories run together. (Example: love the Dresden Files, took an exceedingly long time to read Side Jobs because of this problem.)

Thankfully, Vaughn does something with Kitty’s Greatest Hits that few other urban fantasy authors have managed: she put together a truly engaging, varied short story collection set in her series that does a great deal of work towards expanding the universe itself instead of following the same pattern as the novels. It was a fast, fun read that managed to escape the danger of repetitiveness by ranging far back in history, telling stories about characters who we will never know in the series or who are only briefly mentioned, giving background on leading characters and exploring things like “how the hell did Cormac get Amelia-the-ghost-sorcerer in his head?”

Only three of the stories in the collection are actually narrated by Kitty at all; she features in one other tale, also, as a lead character. In a handful more, her presence is felt in reference or in brief appearance, but she’s just a supporting character. Then, for the rest, she’s nowhere to be found—it’s all about other characters in other times that have led to the world in which the Kitty Norville books take place. Thanks to that, I think Kitty’s Greatest Hits is actually a good jumping-off point for someone unfamiliar with the series; the collection has no high bar of prior story knowledge for a reader to jump first. It’s all readable without any background—in fact, it generally is the background. The stories are all perfectly capable of standing alone, evidenced by their previous publication in such places as Weird Tales, Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons, and several theme anthologies.

As for the stories themselves, there wasn’t a flat one in the bunch. The closest I came to disliking any of them was “Winnowing the Herd,” which is an interesting set-piece examining Kitty’s work environment before the start of the series itself, but has no plot movement. So, while I found it intriguing because of my prior knowledge of the series, an unfamiliar reader would likely have trouble reconciling this early, angrier Kitty with the woman we’re familiar with in the books.

It’s hard to pick favorites—to be one hundred percent honest, I enjoyed the whole thing beginning to end—but the backstory tales stood out for a fan of the series like me. “Conquistador de la Noche” follows Ricardo—or, Rick, as we know him in the series—through his transformation into a vampire and the development of his ethic: to do good in the world, if he must be a monster. It’s an action-packed, historically interesting story that finally answers some of the questions Kitty’s been prodding Rick with for a long time now. “Looking After Family,” too, answers previously open questions—this time, about a teenage Cormac and Ben at Ben’s family farm. It’s an emotionally resonant story that deals with Cormac’s trauma and also the first moment of challenge to what his father taught him about the supernatural—maybe, they aren’t all bad.

Above and beyond those is “Long Time Waiting.” This novella fills in one of the largest gaps in the series—what happened when Cormac was in prison, while Kitty and company were out fighting demons, and how he ended up with Amelia the sorcerer sharing his body. It’s intense, a little scary, and altogether fascinating. Cormac is an excellent lead character; he’s a different flavor of protagonist than Kitty, certainly. Cormac is an antihero figure who has gone through a baptism of fire to become what he is when we-the-reader first meet him; his whole emotional makeup is different. Watching him try to solve a mystery and save his life while trapped in a prison is claustrophobic and so very engaging. I loved the novella and the way it filled in those big narrative gaps. Plus, it also provides a portrait of who Amelia is and how she interacts with Cormac inside his head, which we’ve never had a way to see before in the novels. It’s the story most intended for regular readers of the series, but it still stands alone well.

Actually, it’s worth pointing out that all of those background stories are also fully fleshed stand-alones. It’s quite a tightrope to walk, writing short fiction that can satisfy two different audiences at the same time, but Vaughn does it with the greatest of ease.

I also enjoyed the piece about the court of Henry VII, “A Princess of Spain,” as both a historical vampire tale and a part of the makeup of history in Kitty’s world. Ditto “The Book of Daniel,” which takes a whole new angle on the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den—werelion! Another favorite, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere (it was originally published in Ekaterina Sedia’s Running with the Pack), is “Wild Ride,” a story about how TJ became a werewolf. It brings to fore more directly the allegory of Otherness in urban fantasy fiction by explicitly discussing the parallels of closeting, coming out and identity through the eyes of a gay man who’s HIV positive and decides to join a werewolf pack to save himself.

 

*

Kitty’s Greatest Hits is one of the better series-related urban fantasy collections I’ve read, taken as a whole. I was engaged from start to finish, the stories work as both stand-alones and as pieces of an existing universe, and Vaughn manages to balance her usual protagonist with a variety of other voices and other attitudes toward the supernatural. I’d recommend it to readers curious about the series and to long-time fans equally, as well as to folks who just like good supernatural fiction. Vaughn is as fun in short-form as she is at the novel length.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

1 comment
Jakk
1. Jakk
As i am a fan of the Kitty series, i ordered a copy of this book in Hardcover(and i thank TOR for releasing a version of this book in this format) and was not disapointed. I have read many of the stories contained in here from the original anthologies or publications, but i am very happy that they are now collected in one place, with new stories and a very nice and surprising author notes at the end. A very satisfying book.

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