When I first read about Harlequin starting a fantasy line, I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or wary. After all, category romances are no longer the most exciting reads. Even the sales figures reflect that fact, with ‘big’ multi-character novels like The Ya-Ya Sisterhood and crossover genre novels like the romance thrillers of Kay Hooper doing much better business than straight romances in the past decade or so.
But there was something about Luna Books that made me hopeful. If it was anything like Harlequin’s Mira line, with much stronger characterization, more realistic plots, and multi-cultural backgrounds, it would be worth checking out. But I still wasn’t going to buy a Luna Book just to try out the series–it had to be a title that was interesting enough in itself, regardless of the imprint. After all, like most book lovers, I buy books, or maybe authors, not publishing imprints or lines.
So it was something of a surprise when I happened upon Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy. Because I didn’t come across it while browsing for a romantic fantasy novel. I happened upon it while checking out the latest titles in a sub-genre of fantasy I’ve started to grow really, really fond of lately: urban fantasy thrillers. If you know anything about Harry Potter, you know the genre. Urban fantasy covers stories placed in contemporary settings with realistic characters living relatively ordinary, everyday lives. They live among us, and to all intents and purposes, they are us. Except for that one key thing that separates them from the rest of us.
That key difference could be that she’s a private investigator specializing in esoteric supernatural investigations, as in Laurell K. Hamilton’s hugely successful Anita Blake series of novels. (Although, to be accurate, the Anita Blake novels are set in a world significantly different from our’s, in that vampires, werewolves, and assorted ghoulish creatures co-exist side by side with us, but they still fit the general bill of urban fantasy.)
Or a wizard for hire in mid-town Chicago, like Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, my absolute favourite ongoing series in the urban fantasy sub-genre. Or the near-future police procedurals by Stephen Woodworth that began with Through Violet Eyes about psychic consultants who can communicate with the dead and aid detectives in solving their murders (the psychics all have violet eyes, hence the title of the first book). Or the Stookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. And so many others. (There’s a selection of some covers in some of the major series below, if you want to check them out. These are my picks of the best of the genre.)
Urban Shaman is an urban fantasy set squarely in this sub-genre. The protagonist is a part-Irish part-Indian garage mechanic who works nominally with the Seattle Police Department (she fixes their cars). She goes by the name of Joanne Walker, but her full birth-name is Siobhan Walkingstick. When the novels opens, she’s flying back from a long visit to Ireland, where she was visiting with her mother who has just died of an incurable disease.
Jet-lagged, exhausted, eyes weary from wearing her contact lenses for too many hours, Joanne wants nothing more than to get home and crash for a week, after which she intends to roll her tired carcasse to the PD office downtown and allow her supervisor, a curmudgeonly fellow named Morrison who is waiting eagerly for the slightest excuse to fire her minority ass and replace her with a real cop, so he can finally sack her from her job for the unspeakable crime of over-extending her leave by several months.
That’s when she happens to glance out of the plane, circling in anticipation of a landing slot, and when passing over a suburban street, she sees a woman being chased near an old church by a menacing man and a pack of dogs. Or at least they look like dogs. That’s all she has time to see, and then the plane flies past the street and she’s left with a cold, sick feeling in her belly.
Being who she is, Joanne can’t just leave well enough alone. She has to argue with the pilot and crew and get them to give her enough details about their flying speed, height, etc, so she can figure out the location of the street and church where she saw the woman being chased. Upon landing, she has to jump into a cab without even checking out her luggage (brave woman!), and drive around till she locates the spot of the alleged crime.
What follows thereafter is a few days of intense, fastpaced thrills, chills, and shocks. Joanne doesn’t get much sleep, and her exhaustion becomes an integral part of the story that follows, with her weariness battling the need to solve the mystery of what she saw briefly from the plane window, and then, as things escalate, to stay alive, and finally, to save other lives that are dependent on her by then.
It’s a knuckle-clenching ride of a story, involving the fabled Celtic Wild Hunt, the 12th night of Christmas, Irish demi-gods and their sons, a girl from an ancient painting who might or might not be living in our world posing as a real person, and Native American shamanic folklore and legends. And don’t forget the character named Coyote who is also a man who keeps visiting her everytime she loses consciousness–which is more often than you’d expect–and is apparently working for that mysterious Pie in the Sky (my term, not the author’s) that some of us might call God.
Urban Shaman is a debut novel and at times, it reads like one. C. E. Murphy takes the sleep-deprived motif and all but beats it to death at times. There are moments–several of them–when you want Joanne to just go crash out on her bed in her lonely apartment and sleep it off. Shades of Al Pacino in the film Insomnia. And there are almost too many descriptions of Joanne’s feelings visavis her colleagues in the PD, her boss, the cab driver who unwittingly becomes her closest companion in her unlikely quest, often captured in a style that borders on adolescent angst-ridden confusion.
Joanne also fumbles and stumbles and has one too many pratfalls through this book–the scene where she slips on the frozen police station steps and knocks herself out is more Charlie Chaplin than urban fantasy!–generally managing to do everything that’s possible to prove she’s about ten years younger than the mid-twenties age she’s supposed to be. And the florid internal monologues are often painfully close to romance-novel cliches. Although, to give the author credit, they never actually take those predictable turns into romance-novel territory.
Murphy overcomes these minor stylistic quirks to produce one heck of a fantasy thriller. The amazing thing is that she makes Joanne Walker’s character work brilliantly despite her failings–or perhaps because of them. This is an endearing, eccentric, ethnically confused heroine that you really enjoy spending time with, even when she’s exasperating as hell.
Murphy’s greatest gift is the ability to keep the action coming fast and furious, with something happening on almost every single page. Her sincerity in describing esoteric events and encounters with mythic beings and demi-gods in mundane everyday settings like an airport cafe or an expressway at night makes every unlikely scene totally believable.
She has a real gift for describing action sequences, something that I always look for in a novelist and aspire to myself (which, by the way, is a totally shameless plug for those of you who haven’t read any of my books!) and makes even these unlikely face offs between Joanne and her supernatural foes nail-bitingly intense and viscerally suspenseful.
Urban Shaman is a wholly original debut by a very talented new author who’s going to go places very soon. Fresh, unique, and different from every other urban fantasy I’ve ever read, this exciting supernatural action thriller manages to roll enough wit, emotion, mythology, action set-pieces, suspense, serial murders, mystery, and even a hint of romance (between Joanne and Morrison, which I think is going to develop further in time) into a relatively small, tight bundle of entertainment (well, less than 400 pages at least), making this one of the best goddamn fantasy novels I’ve read this year. And I’ve read more than a few, trust me.
What’s most refreshing is the fact that despite being a Luna Book, Urban Shaman doesn’t lay on the romance track thick and heavy. In effect, there is no romance sub-plot here (I’m only speculating about the Joanne-Morrison relationship) while there’s plenty of exciting fantasy thrills and chills to be had.
The interweaving of the Native American shamanic details with Celtic myth is inspired and brilliantly done. The action sequences are wonderfully written (did I praise her action writing already? Well, it deserves to be praised over and over). And Joanne Walker, or Siobhan Walkingstick, or whatever you care to call her, is a heroine who’s going to give Anita Blake, Harry Dresden, and the rest of the urban fantasy clutch a hell of a run for their money.
I’m already looking forward to the sequel, Thunderbird Falls, scheduled to be published next summer, and am fervently hoping that this will burgeon into a whole series featuring Joanne Walker and Coyote (and Gary as well, don’t forget Gary, whom we shall not call Cooper even though that’s the Gary he reminds us of so strongly). There’s also a novella featuring Joanne in the collection Winter Moon coming this November. And after this terrifically entertaining debut, I’m willing to check out even C.E. Murphy’s other series of action thrillers, written under the pseudonym Cate Dermody and published under the Harlequin Bombshell imprint. She’s just too good a writer to miss out on.