Contrary to the article that graced this blog last week, I have been known to choose a book to read (or not read) based on genre. Usually I do it to avoid things I know I won't like, as opposed to trending toward things I know I will. For example, I hate paranormal romance and dislike most urban fantasies (because they masquerade as paranormal romance). Over the weekend, I made a choice to read an Urban Fantasy book specifically because I realized I should practice what I preach. With that in mind I read Jennifer Safrey's debut novel Tooth and Nail, from Night Shade Books.
Gemma Cross's boyfriend is running for congress. She used to be a professional pollster, but now she's retired to support her boyfriend's ambition. To keep herself busy she's rededicated herself to boxing, a childhood love and lifetime hobby. Her life is perfect, until a magnetic young woman shows up at her gym offering her the job of a lifetime. See, Gemma is half faerie - specifically half tooth faerie. Get it? Tooth and Nail. As a hybrid of fae and human, Gemma is destined to defend the Olde Way, the memory of an idyllic life that pre-dates humankind. To bring back the Olde Way, the fae collect innocence, which is -- not surprisingly -- encapsulated in the baby teeth of children. Someone is threatening that process, and Gemma is the only person who can stop it.
Before I go any further let me be clear, this is an utterly ridiculous premise. How ridiculous? Like John Travolta insisting he's straight, ridiculous. Ok, maybe not that bad. But, Tooth and Nail is about the tooth faerie saving the world, an idea I thought put aside for good after the movie starring the Rock. Unlike the movie, I'm pretty sure Safrey isn't going for tongue in cheek comedy (unless I'm really dense), instead opting for a serious take on (I feel silly even saying it) the mystical being that replaces teeth with small change. Some readers just won't be able to get past that, and I wouldn't hold that against anyone. That said, and believe me this is hard to say, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I read it in one sitting.
Perhaps I was predisposed to like Safrey's novel. Set in Washington DC, in the midst of a Virginia Congressional election, the book moves through a lot of my circles. Even a boxing gym in Chinatown, where one actually exists, is rendered with a touch of familiarity. Safrey deftly captures the paranoia of a political race, and the mindset of most candidates as they have their life picked apart. There's even a blogger called the D.C. Digger. Trust me when I say, there are plenty of those in the real world. Added to this perfect (for me) milieu, are dynamic and effective characters, a distinct lack of overt romance, and a well designed plot, making Tooth and Nail everything I want from my urban fantasy (that I almost never read).
The novel focuses on three primary points in Gemma's character that ultimately drive the narrative. First, that Gemma isn't some trophy wife, who will sit on the sidelines while her man makes laws. Second, being a tooth fairy isn't exactly what she had in mind. Third, filling that role is a lot more than she bargained for, jeopardizing her life, her boyfriend's career, and the way she relates to the world at large. To the first point, I think a lot of the novel's success is predicated on Gemma being a real woman with... AGENCY. I've been waiting to use that term ever since Liz Bourke wrote her review of Theft of Swords.
Gemma doesn't wait around for men to solve her problems. She isn't overly beautiful, or stereotypical in any way that I've come to recognize females in fantasy novels. Sure, she gets weak in the knees at the sight of a set of six-pack abs, but that comes across more realistic than gratuitous and for an urban fantasy novel, Tooth and Nail spends very little time developing romantic tension. Safrey instead develops tension by challenging her characters and their mores, asking them to exist in real space, not some contrived romantic or supernatural boondoggle. That's not to say there aren't some contrived scenes (there are several), but they are the exception as opposed to the rule.
For those who read this blog regularly and/or converse with me on Twitter, I'm sure this review is somewhat staggering. Tooth and Nail is radically divorced from what I typical read or enjoy. Tying it back to my article from Friday, that's the beauty of reading without preconceptions. The truth is there are good urban fantasies and paranormal romances, just as there are epic fantasies and space operas. It's unfortunate that I'll read very few because of how they're defined by the marketplace.
I'm glad to have read Jennifer Safrey's debut and I'd love to hear from anyone out there with ideas for novels I might enjoy off my beaten path. ...more
Hitchers is my first exposure to Hugo award winner Will McIntosh. Somehow I missed his debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, last year. I'm terrible about keeping up on short fiction, but his 2009 Hugo Award winning short story, Bridesicles, was just recently optioned for a feature film. He's also signed a book deal with Orbit to write a novel based on it. Clearly, I've been missing out and Hitchers confirms it.
A tight novel, Hitchers is a fast paced horror story built on the premise of the dead coming back to life. When an act of terrorism unleashes anthrax on Atlanta, killing hundreds of thousands, cartoonist Finn Darby begins blurting things in a strange voice beyond his control. Countless other residents of Atlanta are suffering a similar bizarre affliction. Either all of Atlanta is suffering a psychological break or the dead have returned to possess the living.
Called hitchers, the voices aren't particularly happy and Finn has it worse than most. His voice sounds like his grandfather -- Tom Darby, creator of the long-running newspaper comic strip Toy Shop. And Grandpa isn't terribly happy about the changes Finn has been making to the strip. Naturally, the quest is to get rid of the hitchers and get life back to normal. The mechanism accomplishing this functions like a mystery thriller as Finn and his friends discover the how and why behind the supernatural event.
While McIntosh is executing a simple plot, with more than few contrivances, the strength of the novel is in the emotional and philosophical content. Often communicated through clever interior art in the form of the Toy Shop comic strip, Hitchers discusses the ties that bind people together, and the only thing guarantees to sever them -- death. For Finn, these ties relate to both his grandfather and his dead wife, but also to the rest of his family who are harried, even from the grave, by the Santini like figure of Tom Darby. It all works in McIntosh's capable hands, resonating on every level.
As I read, I was reminded of the television show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It was a show about making a sketch comedy show (Saturday Night Live look-a-like), but they never actually showed the comedy sketches. It deflated the product. Hitchers shows the product (Toy Shop) and it makes the whole story pop. Finn and Tom Darby are cartoonists whose conflict stems (at least superficially) from their difference of opinion on the artistic direction of a comic strip. Finn, in particular, is portrayed with such familiarity that I imagine McIntosh has sat at an easel to ink a few frames himself. All in all, the strips are a small part of the overall product, but I can't overstate their importance to the novel's veracity.
I did mention some contrivances earlier in the review, and for some they may detract from the story. Tom Darby is borderline unbelievable in his unabashed selfishness. Finn, and his buddies, always seem to find the people they need to find in convenient fashion. The conclusion to the hitcher problem is one that's as old as the first ghost story. In the moment, I didn't find any of these to be disruptive to my enjoyment of the novel, and McIntosh's skill as a story teller never ceased to stand out.
Based on what I've read about Soft Apocalypse I'm not sure that its proponents will immediately feel the same about Hitchers. The speculation is grounded in the supernatural realm, painting a disturbing view of the afterlife that will give readers something to muse about long about after the final page. He suspends reality more than extrapolating it to a logical conclusion, which seems to me a very different kind of novel. Nevertheless, it demonstrates tremendous range, and given the subjects of his new two-book deal with Orbit, I expect McIntosh to continue to push those boundaries.
Long story short -- if Will McIntosh were a blog, I'd be making sweet love to his RSS feed. Wait... that didn't come out right. ...more