Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kick-assitude and Magic Bites

I've been thinking about the interesting trope of strong female characters in Urban Fantasy, especially Kate Daniels. I think it can be said that in general, stubborn female characters often surface as protagonists in detective-esque novels, and in Urban Fantasy, you need your characters to be able to take on supernatural enemies, so a certain badassitude must arise.
Sometimes I'm fine with Kate Daniels being kick-ass and generally coming out on top in a fight. I mean, she does get injured and lose friends. I mean, obviously she's not gonna die, so whenever she gets hurt she has to make a miraculous recovery. And she's gotta take down the ever escalating evil dudes, so she's gotta pack a punch.
I think that at first, before you see that she takes losses, it can be a little much. As Rita pointed out, the first we see of her is flinging a knife into a vampire with would-be deadly accuracy. I think, looking back, my initial attitude was "This girl's gonna get her shit rocked." I was sort of waiting for her to be smacked off her pedestal. Which came, in due time.
Maybe part of what helped me not be turned off by Kate is her similarity to Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. They're actually startlingly similar; both aren't the prettiest girls, but they still have lots of men on them, both are stubborn with a capital S, they both hunt down people who break the law, but they aren't law-enforcers, and both have serious commitment issues. And bad-ass boyfriends.
The main difference is that Stephanie Plum is very obviously incompetent, but she pulls through miraculously (usually with the help of others). And she's a great lover of donuts.
So I guess, seeing the similarities between Kate and Stephanie, I could forgive Kate for being a bit Mary Sue. I enjoy her stubborn attitude the same way I enjoy Stephanie's, and once you get a little later into the book/series, you see that Kate isn't all powerful, and the playing field balances out. I mean, of course she's always going to survive against the insane odds, but she does come out injured, physically and psychologically. I'm repeating myself.
Blah blah blah! I like Kate Daniels.
I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with a good plot-line for the short story I'm writing for the final project. I've got the main characters, the setting, and the basic idea but I'm not sure exactly how I want the main idea to actually play out. I hope it turns out well when I finally get it done. On another note, I was browsing around the internet yesterday to see if I could find any other blogs about urban fantasy. I found one that is called All Things Urban Fantasy on blogspot. It's pretty good and the thing I like best is that they have a DNF list. A "did not finish" list of books that were so terrible the writers of the blog couldn't get through them. I was wondering if anyone was interested in compiling our own DNF List? I think it's too bad that the first book on their list, Darkness Descending, got such a bad review. It actually sounds kind of interesting if you ask me. I've read part of Monster's Corner and I have to agree with whoever wrote that review. It was just a bit too unsettling for me and usually I like reading weird stuff that's supposed to creep you out. Oh and someone please tell me that this IS meant to be a parody...I just found this, here's the link. Scroll down and you can't miss it. It's the 20th book down the list... http://allthingsurbanfantasy.blogspot.com/2011/09/hot-off-press-69-new-paranormal-titles.html

Monday, November 28, 2011

Woland

As I was reading The Master and Margarita, I could not help but notice something about the character of Woland. On our sheet of discussion questions for the novel, there is one to the effect of "Is Woland evil?" I'd like to chip in my two cents on this interesting question. At first I thought that of course Woland is evil! He's Satan! I mean, how can Satan not be evil? I think that Bulgakov did a great job making Woland's questionable activities seem hilarious. At turns I didn't know whether I felt like laughing at his antics or screaming from horror at the possibility of these things actually happening. It was a confusing reading experience! As the story got further along and we were introduced to Margarita, I began to think that Woland might not be as evil as his title makes him seem. I don't think that he could truly be evil if he helped the Master and Margarita stage their own deaths and run away together with him. It can be argued that Woland did this only as payment for Margarita agreeing to act as his hostess at his party. To this I say that Woland could easily have just killed Margarita when he was done using her or told her to sod off. I think that this points to the fact that Woland and his cohorts really aren't as evil as they may seem. In addition to this is the fact that people benefited in a roundabout way from Woland's intervention in their lives. Take Ivan Homeless for example: it was by being put in the psychiatric hospital after his encounter with Woland that he realized that his poems were not very good after all. Nearly everyone Woland or his associates come into contact with are what could be considered low people. They are greedy, selfish, arrogant, or any number of other undesirable things. In my mind, some of them got their just reward. So maybe Woland isn't so evil after all, eh?

The Master and Margarita

I've finished reading The Master and Margarita and I have to say that it's quickly earned a place on my favorite books list. That being said I can't help but wonder about something. It's certainly clear that this is an Urban Fantasy novel but I've been wondering what place the story of Pontius Pilate has in the overall novel. I absolutely loved reading about Woland and all the crazy things that he caused to happen in Moscow. When the story shifted back to the story of Pontius Pilate, I felt like the book had been interrupted. To me, it doesn't seem like the story of Pilate fits into the Urban Fantasy genre. Of course we could say that without the side story, the Master would not have ended up in the psychiatric hospital and perhaps nor would Ivan Homeless. Still, it seemed like an interruption.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Urban Fantasy VS Romance Novels

So the other day i read a book called "One Foot in the Grave", and it billed itself as an urban fantasy novel. Allegedly it takes place somewhere near Cleveland, though I didn't recognized any places mentioned...Well anyway, it read more like a trashy romance novel than UF. Sure the main character (Cat) is a half vampire...and sure, she works with a vampire to kill OTHER vampires...But for the most part it felt like a romance with 'oh yeah, and he sucks blood' tacked on.

I'm not sure how i feel about UF novels crossing into romances. On the one hand, i love a trashy romance. On the other, i like UH. Putting them together should be a great idea...But it doesn't usually work out for some reason. Perhaps they don't put enough about the supernatural in it for me? Perhaps they neglect fleshing out the characters? I don't know, but there is something about them i just don't like.

Some novels mix it well (or did originally). Anita Blake. Sookie Stackhouse. Bella...Swan? (Nevermind the last one!). But eventually they fall off the ladder one way or the other and should either stop writing or claim a genre switch. "One Foot in the Grave" is apparently part of a nine book series, and if the first book was this bad, i shudder to think about the other eight.

But that's just my opinion.

Monday, November 21, 2011

People love a good urban fantasy. Suddenly, books about the fantastic are everywhere--it'd be really hard not to notice the sudden kick in popularity. (See, for example: Twilight. But look away before you go blind.) What's also noticeable, however, is that people mostly like urban fantasies when they're packaged as urban fantasies.

Take Liar by Justine Larbalestier, a story about a young girl in the city dealing with the death of a boy in her class through several filters of narrative unreliability. Larbalestier's a rising YA author who's made her mark through fantasy stories. Taking it by pattern alone, it should have been no surprise that she'd write another. But when Liar was released, despite a strong narrative voice and an intriguing story, reviews poured in that were lukewarm at best. There was even a little bit of an outcry. I read it myself and felt annoyed rather than impressed by the twist.

In a similar vein, Jennifer Crusie--typecast as a witty and remarkable beach read romance writer--wrote a novel called Maybe, This Time: a retelling of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Prior to its publication, she was terribly popular, and for good reason. Maybe, This Time might even have been a strong entry into her list of works. But, once again, readers made unsure faces at the content. They loved the romance; they loved the characters; they loved the creepy old house. But... and there it was. But.

Why?

Neither had been marketed as urban fantasy.

Liar was classed as general young adult and Maybe, This Time as romance. In both cases, the supernatural elements aren't casual, subtle little asides in the story--they slam into the plot and carry it away into definite fantasy territory: the transformed land for which there is no ignorance. And their results actually did feel a little bit cheap. Not because the magic had been badly shoehorned in, but because the inherent reader expectation in a non-genre book is for the book to stick to the rules laid down by the beginning of the book--the rules of normalcy, the rules of reality. Readers felt betrayed because the answer had come to them, and it wasn't one they could have ever deduced.

Authors don't often break genres for the same reason that mystery writers don't often end their books with, "oh, by the way, the culprit was this guy nobody ever mentioned who just happened to spot an opportunity and wandered in to commit the crime because he could." Readers like a fighting chance at solving the narrative and, frankly, nobody expects the unexpected. (That's what being unexpected means.)

The problem here is, of course, obvious: nobody complains when a surprise mystery slides into their literature. It's a rare book nowadays that goes entirely without mention of romance. Even science fiction gets away with a little bit of plausible deniability now and then if people slip the tech in discreetly enough. Speculative fiction is very likely the only genre that has to experience this bit of exclusion from the mainstream. And how do you get around that without betraying the reader's expectations?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Urban Cartoon Fantasy

Urban Fantasy in recent cartoons:

Beavis and Butt-Head has returned with all new episodes. Praise be to whoever! The first episode, (which you can watch here: http://www.mtv.com/shows/beavis_and_butthead/video.jhtml?filter=fulleps ) has a segment called "Werewolves of Highland." Go ahead and watch it or read on for a plot synopsis, which isn't really a spoiler since the same description is on MTV's website.

Our two heroes go to see a Twilight movie and realize that "chicks dig monsters." So they decide to roam around their town of Highland looking for a vampire or werewolf to bite them so they can "score." They find an old homeless man who they mistake for a werewolf and pay him to bite them. They end up getting infected with hepatitis as well as other diseases and as their health deteriorates they figure they are undergoing a "transformation," and seek out women who they expect to now be attracted to them. It's hilarious.

Then, on The Simpsons this Sunday (tomorrow), none other than Neil Gaiman will guest star as Homer sets out to write a YA novel. Homer thinks he knows what the next character fad will be in YA fiction after vampires and zombies: ...TROLLS!
If you don't catch it on Sunday it will be up a day or two later at: http://www.thesimpsons.com/

Here is an article where Neil Gaiman talks about his Simpsons appearance and other junk:

Enjoy!

P.S. I did in fact see Breaking Dawn. There is plenty I could say against it, but ultimately I was entertained, which is why my wife and I have gone to see all the Twilight movies.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Social Commentary

In response to Mike's most recent post about historical context: I very much agree that the definition of Urban Fantasy needs to be changed. As Mike nicely pointed out, several of the books we've read do in fact contain intersting social and historical issues. When I first started reading Urban Fantasy, and I'll admit I haven't read too many, I thought that the books were simply entertaining. The idea that their purpose might be anything other than entertainment did not cross my mind. Reading over the posts on here has enabled me to see that the genre is more than that. I especially find the anti-capitalism in Neverwhere to be interesting. I have long thought that this country needs to focus a bit more on what really matters than on capitalism. Values have really deteriorated in this country, if you ask me. I feel like I'm rambling a bit here so let me come full circle. My point here is that social commentary is an important point in Urban Fantasy and the genre ought to be given more credit for that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I'm wondering how the reading of some novels for this class would change with greater emphasis on historical context. Gaiman's work is a polemic against capitalism, and to a large degree the elements of normative society that are part of capitalism's mythology. Both Kim Harrison and Charlie Huston invoke HIV/AIDS within their works. Harrison creates an HIV/AIDS allegory that decimates those who reproduce within the human population; Huston parallels the existence of HIV/AIDS with a second virus that leads to vampirism. Although this parallel exists, the moment of infection for Joe is aligned more with the narratives of Samuel Delany, et. al. who discuss cruising and anonymous sex in theaters, bathrooms, and other areas of New York. These three works, and to some degree Mike Carey's sensitivity to human trafficking and the plight of Eastern European women, reshape what Urban Fantasy may actually be doing. Much like their close genre cousins (sci-fi and dystopia) these works appear to be both explicating a rather troublesome historical moment while also subverting the history that informs the texts. This will be no more evident than in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita where Stalinism influences every facet of existence. Perhaps the definition of urban fantasy should be amended to include political and social discussion on the level of seriousness as other, more "traditional" works of fiction.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's talk about the use of archetypal characters in urban fantasy. This is on my mind because of Already Dead, but you can see it in Dead Witch Walking and Street Magic and so on. It feels like there is a sort of set, a template, of main characters for urban fantasies: the snarky, charming-yet-clumsy lead female; the gruff, sexually-appealing-but-mysterious lead male, the seductive-yet-untrustworthy vampire love interest, etc. This is because these characters work, especially as most urban fantasy tends to involve some kind of mystery solving and therefore the snarky lead female and the noir-esque lead male lend themselves to an enjoyable, if slightly predictable, ride.

However, I find myself a bit tired of characters who feel right out of *insert dozens of other urban fantasy novels here*. I want authors to try a little harder to give their characters more identity, more quirks that I couldn't guess they'd have just by reading the first few pages about them. I think Rachel Morgan is an excellent lead character because, at first, she does fulfill an archetype. However, as you continue throughout the series, her character becomes more filled out, more morally ambiguous, and she avoids the long-lasting romantic entanglements that are so predictable in these kinds of books.