Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Book Review: Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow

In the hands of a talented editor, the term urban fantasy can be this flexible theme that's not limited by sub-genre. That's the initial impression I got with Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, as it features all sorts of stories ranging from high fantasy, noir, mythic fiction, and horror (or some combination thereof). Admittedly, there are readers who find comfort in formula, but if you're the type that revels in the unknown, willing to be surprised or charmed or horrified (trick or treat!), then this is the book for you.

Admittedly, I read Naked City under the worst possible circumstances — that is, one story at a time over a period of two months, which is slow for an anthology with twenty stories. Combine this with the fact that Ellen Datlow has released several anthologies this year, so things can get a bit blurry. But in many ways, this is the harshest test for a book: which stories leave a lasting impression and which are forgettable? It's a testament to the editor and contributors at how striking many of these stories are, even when read independently and a review is being written weeks after the last story is read.

For me, the stories in the anthology can be divided into one of two categories: those that are simply fun, and those that are meaty, bizarre, and takes some time to process. Not that a story is exclusive to one of these two, nor is "fun" a term that's articulate enough to describe what makes the story work, but these categorization helps me classify which stories can be read on the surface level, and which ones require a significant investment on the reader's part.

There's more of the former than the latter. "On the Slide" by Richard Bowes has this definite noir cinema atmosphere and the mashup is actually relevant to the story; "The Duke of Riverside" by Ellen Kushner is a welcome return to the world of Swordspoint; "Fairy Gifts" by Patricia Briggs combines vampires with the fey; "Priced to Sell" by Naomi Novik is funny and cosmopolitan; and there's something loosely Lovecraftian in "The Colliers' Venus (1893)" by Caitlin R. Kiernan. While the plot of these stories can be summed up in an elevator pitch, they successfully conjure one dominant emotion as you're reading through the story, whether it's foreboding, dread, or whimsiness.

When it comes to the meaty, complex stories, there's three that I'd like to tackle. First, there's "The Projected Girl" by Lavie Tidhar. It's atmospheric and continually blurs the line between the supernatural and the realistic. Legedermain is employed as the author uses his protagonist's history to link the conflict to present events and everything seamlessly falls into place. There's something formulaic about the story but Tidhar is transparent about this and doesn't really care: his style mesmerizes you and takes you for an enjoyable ride.

"Daddy Longlegs of the Evening" by Jeffrey Ford is deceptive; there's a playful tone to the story and it's evident that Ford is having a fun time writing this piece. Of course underneath all of that is this layer of darkness, and the author continually juggles the reader's sense of wonder along with dread and the weird.

Last is "The Skinny Girl" by Lucius Shepard. I'm not from Mexico, but Shepard crafts this believable setting that's peppered with telling details and nuances. What wins you over is the slow transformation of the protagonist, at how his skepticism eventually transforms and evolves. It's a bait that the reader is all-too-willing to partake and Shepard pulls it off.

The three aforementioned stories are already well worth the price of entry to Naked City but what's great about the anthology is that there's a lot of strong, memorable stories that defies formula and actually reinvigorates our understanding of the term urban fantasy.

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