Learning by Doing: Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City

This review feels a little odd to write. Not because of the book exactly but because of who it is written by. You see, The Shambling Guide to New York City is the mainstream debut of Mur Lafferty. She is the host of, amongst other things, the I Should Be Writing podcast and, at the time of writing, she’s released almost 300 episodes of writing advice. So knowing that, and listening to the podcast, there is this niggling question of can she practice what she preaches?

But talking about how to write a novel doesn’t help you actually write one and sitting in an office doesn’t make you an expert in making a guide to where coterie (monsters to you and me) hang out. And that is one aspect where Mur and her main character Zoë are alike. They are both learning by doing.

We meet Zoë just after she’s fled to New York to rebuild her life and is looking for a job. She finds one that is perfect, but the owner isn’t keen on letting her apply. Zoë starts off a little unfriendly, a little too blunt and unsympathetic, though that facade quietly fades as Lafferty introduces us (and Zoë) into the hidden world where monsters lurk and which humans rarely see unless they’re thralls or food.

Lafferty’s strength is in the dialogue and the way that her characters bounce off of one another. Zoë has a good sense of humour. Her boss, Phil the vampire, is dry and more than once acts as her straight man. And then you have John, the incubus—not a man to say no to, though Zoë tries very hard to resist him. It’s fun to see how Zoë interacts with all these characters: they each feel different and she reacts accordingly.

Speaking of different, building the story around your main character (a human) editing a guide for monsters (they definitely prefer to be called coterie) is a nice take on the urban fantasy genre and a great way to give access to this hidden world.

The question, though, is what happens to Zoë after she sees behind the curtain? And this is the point where not everything goes smoothly: for Zoë, there is drama, and for the reader things get a little rougher. The problem isn’t the set up, as it is engaging, but with how it is executed.

As this is a debut novel and an introduction into this world, should you forgive it for not being smooth? You can, and if all the other elements work, such as snappy dialogue and interesting characters, it makes it much easier.

Two events spring to mind that stand out a little too much. As a formula, meeting the mentor happens a lot in novels. And Zoë has lots of mentors in this book, as each non-human she meets introduces her to different aspects of the coterie world—she works with vampires, zombies, a water fae, and a death goddess—and some take her to see different parts of her new world. I enjoyed Zoë’s introduction to a sex club, for example. It wasn’t a direction I expected, but it showed Zoë isn’t as well-equiped for the world she’s now in as she thought.

It’s the introduction of the mentor who is teaching her to defend herself that threw me. We meet the homeless, but deceptive, Granny Good Mae a couple of times before she formally mentors Zoë, and at those times we see glimpses of fear in the surrounding coterie. But when they finally talk properly we get a page or so of info dumping about Granny Mae and her life. The intention may have been to build a quick bond between the two characters, but it felt misplaced, or at least mistimed.

Being so early on it did set a little bit of doubt as to whether there would be wider issues. And there is one, well two, but they are linked and it’s to do with plotting and finesse. The question of what to do with this set-up is answered by having Zoë’s past come back to haunt her. And when you see what form that takes it seems a little bit of a leap. A bit more warning in the form of foreshadowing was really needed to see the threat much earlier. Not the nature of the threat as such, but more about Zoë having connections to coterie in her past so readers may have been able to see the danger even if Zoë couldn’t. As it stands the connection felt a little forced.

The other is the ending. Action scenes are difficult, especially if you are limited to one point of view (Zoe’s), and it’s easy to get lost. It’s also hard to explain what it lacked without giving it away. In terms of an idea it was surprising. Lafferty has been very imaginative throughout. She’s got conventions and expectations that are hard to deviate from like Zombies are slow and eat brains and vampires suck blood and are generally very well-mannered. What the ending lacked, though was details of how something big could more through New York in the way it did. It felt hard to envisage the scale and relationship to its surroundings.

However, the info dumping, jumped connection and the slightly visually confusing ending might sound like major issues but they don’t spoil the central enjoyment of Zoë entering a world that she is not prepared for, even if she thinks she is, and the fun had with who she meets, what she gets up to and the choice of love interest, which more than make up for those bumps in the road.

This review can’t end without mentioning the extracts of the guide that appear between chapters. They make insightful and fun asides. Mur mentions the influence of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and they do have the same effect of giving insight that would be hard to insert elsewhere and if removed would be missed.

The Shambling Guide to New York City shows that Mur Lafferty has something different to bring to the urban fantasy genre. She’s created a character that can experiance the human/non-human dynamic via researching a travel guide, which we’d never see through the usual detectives and ass-kicking central characters, and with snappy dialogue, a creative cast and can-do central characters we have fun tagging along.

Next stop, The Ghost Train to New Orleans!

The Shambling Guide to New York City is published by Orbit. It is available May 28.

Gavin Pugh is also known as blogger Gav Reads. He reads a lot of SFF with a bit of crime thrown in. He also co-hosts a weekly podcast called The Readers.


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