October 1, 2007 - Issue #279

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

The Allure of Urban Fantasy

The other evening my brother-in-law Jack and his two kids, Taylor and Haley, were sitting around our dinner table, and after we tried, once more, to prod Jack into the 21st century (as he waxed on about the delights of rotary phones), I turned to Taylor and asked if he'd gotten into Facebook. No, he said, to which I replied, "It's a lot of fun...let me show you my page after dinner, but first, wanna hear how some college boys ripped me to shreds because of a werewolf icon?"

Boy...that stopped the conversation cold! It had done something similar the day before when I'd called my husband to tell him about it. Here's what happened: After joining Facebook, fantasy/paranormal romance author Michele Rowen's "vampire" attacked me. Given that I'm more into shapeshifters than vamps, instead of attacking her back as a vampire, I attacked her as a werewolf. Only then did I notice that the werewolf icon associated with this Facebook application looked like the cheesy Michael Landon version of a werewolf as depicted in that 50s B-movie, I Was a TeenAge Werewolf.

Now, if you are anything like me and have read any or quite a bit of shapeshifter fiction - whether romance, erotic romance, or urban fantasy/horror, you already know that unless something has gone wrong terribly wrong - a shapeshifter exists either in human form or animal form, not both at the same time. A werewolf either looks like a majestic wolf or a person...not some ridiculous genetic mistake.

So, I went to the application page and asked if the designers could come up with a different icon for some of us to use, and was pounced upon by a large group of rabid fanboys. In no uncertain terms was I told that this was a horrible idea, and would mark the death knoll of werewolves throughout the universe if the designers took my suggestion.

I wanted to post again explaining that for all I cared, the designers could create the picture of a werewolf with a frigging fox in its mouth, but restrained myself, knowing the cause was lost. I knew that even a picture like the one to your left, with a wolf snarling over the dead carcass of its prey, would not be suitable for this group because for them it's not about the majesty of the wolf, but the cheese factor of the wolf man.

While werewolves are near to becoming passé in romance in favor or demons and dragons, they replaced vampires - even more passé - in my affections long ago. And yet, try as I might to convince Blythe or Cheryl that a werewolf could be sexy, I haven't succeeded. I hold no illusions that I'll turn any non-shape-shifting readers of their allure by the end of this column, but since a half-werewolf/half-vampire stars in my favorite urban fantasy series, what better way to get into the subject at hand?

In re-organizing my bookshelves earlier this summer, an earlier internal debate resurfaced where vampire, werewolf, and other "monster" books were concerned. It's a debate that I also wage within myself when finalizing reviews. Is that book alternate reality, or is it really paranormal? Is it paranormal or might it instead be urban fantasy? Every time this happens, I automatically ask myself: Is this a romance or not? If it's a romance - ie, Christine Warren's Others - urban fantasy is eliminated, and then the question becomes: Is this alternate reality romance or paranormal romance? Honestly, I'm sure I've not been consistent in this area - hopefully by the end of your discussion on the ATBF forum, I will be.

As for urban fantasy, it's a term I've used for a couple of years now, but when my husband asked me for the definition, I told him to "look it up". Can I tell you he was not pleased? <g> Whenever I'm asked for AAR's definition of fantasy fiction (or fantasy romance, if the story is primarily a romance), my answer is always that fantasy features gods and goddesses, faerie, demons, or magic. Unfortunately, that doesn't hold true with urban fantasy, because while Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series, featuring the fae (both seelie and unseelie courts), is one I consider fantasy fiction, it is her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series that I've come to consider as urban fantasy, and my introduction to it - when a mix of "monsters" living in a contemporary setting are the focus. In recent years, many of the books that have come out in this genre include the type of kick-ass action/adventure heroine that Anita Blake set the gold standard for.

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I've read a number of books in this mold; some work, some don't. Earlier this year, for instance, I read Jeanne Stein's Blood Drive. It was not a successful reading experience. The urban fantasy heroines created by Stein, LKH, Charlaine Harris, Kelly Armstrong, and Keri Arthur are all kick-ass. But in this book, Stein's didn't solve paranormal crime while the other authors, far more successful as far as I'm concerned, do. The heroine in Blood Drive is a baby vamp who instead solves a mystery that would have made more sense had I been watching Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit. Yawn. Another day, another kick-ass urban fantasy heroine, apparently, only works for me if preternatural crime is involved. If not, why monsters to begin with?

Even more unsuccessful for me was L.A. Banks' Minion, the first in her Vampire Huntress series, albeit for a different reason. Although Publishers Weekly's review of the book was scathing, I'd heard so many good things about this series in recent years that I wanted to decide for myself. Granted, the version I read was an "enhanced" version, and it's possible that like other "director's cuts", the enhancements were a detriment to the book, but this one was a slog. Good urban fantasy is action-packed and reads quickly. Banks' book featured so much world-building that it took me days to finish.

And then there was Rachel Vincent's Stray, featuring one-dimensional world-building that focused solely on the territorial nature of the feline. The upshot was a male "love interest" who behaved most often like a stalker. It's unfortunate indeed that the heroine probably actually did indeed love him, because all the evidence pointed to the contrary. And speaking of the heroine, she was sooo TSTL, but the "S" isn't for stupid...it's for stubborn. Many authors mistake stubborn behavior for strength, and Vincent's error in this book is glaring. The heroine is unyielding to the point of perverseness. The book's final flaws are its extraordinarily large number of secondary characters and its unforgiving length; at 600 pages it's a third too long. Even for stalwart urban fantasy readers, getting through this one requires a substantial effort that isn't worth it.

But instead of writing more about the urban fantasy I didn't like, I'd prefer now to write about some urban fantasy novels I do like, and because elsewhere, and at other times here on AAR I've written about LKH, Charlaine Harris, and Kelley Armstrong, today I'd like to focus on Keri Arthur's Guardian series, which to date is comprised of five novels (three alone released this year).

I had no real expectations when, a few months before its release, I sat down to read Full Moon Rising, her first book in the series. Prior to its publication, Arthur had been published by ImaJinn, a small publisher, but the back cover of the arc I read deemed it her debut. Regardless, I was engrossed the moment Arthur introduced her heroine, dhampire (half werewolf/half vampire) Riley Jenson, who works for Melbourne's Directorate of Other Races, along with her twin brother Rhoan, who serves in a more dangerous and violent capacity for the Directorate. Riley may not have made the same sort of commitment to the Directorate as her Guardian brother, but after he disappears and a naked vampire appears on her doorstep, she is drawn deeper and deeper in the more dangerous aspects of the organization.

Unlike Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse, the werewolves in Arthur's books don't really delve into pack politics. Ever since Riley and Rhoan were tossed out of their mother's pack for being half-breeds, they've been pack enough for one another. That begins to change in the most recent release, Embraced by Darkness, when to save their mother's life, they are forced by their pack alpha to investigate the disappearance of his granddaughter. It is also in this most recent release that we see what happens when an alpha wolf loves a female whose job puts her in more danger than he is capable of protecting her from. While previous books in the series have ended on mixed notes, the ending to this one kicks up the predicament that is Riley's life several notches.

Like Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse, Riley Jenson doesn't have just one lover. She's a werewolf, after all, and quite frankly, the character's love of her werewolf nature on a level more often read in erotic romance is one of the reasons I enjoy this series. It's not that Arthur writes the most stellar sex scenes, but the "moon-heat" werewolves experience, and how it affects their behavior, seemed authentic, for lack of a better term, to me.

Full Moon Rising read more like a hybrid of romance and fiction than subsequent books in the series, and here's why. Quinn, the naked vamp, is set up as Riley's love interest (and he remains one throughout more of the series), but his "I'll never love another werewolf because one done me wrong" is classic Romanceland material. His feelings for Riley hit up against his disgust at the sexual promiscuousness of the werewolf, and as a result, he never fully gives of himself, or allows Riley to be an equal in their relationship, which causes more and more problems as the series progresses. In book five he doesn't appear at all, but I look for his return in a subsequent release. On the other hand, the author seems to want things both ways; in reality wolfs are not monogamous, but in Arthur's world, eventually a wolf finds his or her soul-mate and settles down. But because Riley's not yet found her mate, she experiences energetic sex with multiple partners, revels in her sexuality, and refuses to change her nature to suit Quinn's prejudicial beliefs. Riley truly is a modern werewolf. <g>

Because the Guardian books deal with "monsters", the author is able to explore actual issues in an almost Star Trek-esque fashion. No, there's nothing so obvious as the "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" episode in which two races - one with faces that are black on the left and white on the right, the other with faces that are white on the left and black on the right - are locked in a racial struggle. Instead, Rhoan is gay, and I loved that his sexual orientation is simply a non-issue. He loves his sister, he's a great Guardian, and oh, yes...he's gay, has a fabulous lover, and commitment issues.

Another social issue Arthur tackles is entirely related to her world-building, but it's easily translatable in terms of the ways groups of human beings compare themselves to other groups. In Riley's world, there are werewolves and shapeshifter wolves, the latter of which view themselves as better than true weres, and here's why, directly from the author:

"The difference between a shifter and a were is the fact that a were is governed by the moon, and must change shape with the full moon. They can shift at other times, of course, but the full moon gives them no choice. Shifters aren’t governed by the moon, and aren’t effected by the moon heat or forced to changed.

"Over all, shifters and weres of the same species stand at the same level. One is not higher than the other in the food chain. It’s just that some shifters (like the wolf shifters) think they’re better than the weres because they are not at the mercy of their hormones during the week before the full moon."

My biggest problem with Kissing Sin, the second book in Arthur's series, was the tagline on my arc, referring to arthur as "the new star of paranormal romance" and the back cover copy, which compares her to Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon, because readers who bought the book expecting a romance would have not been happy with Riley's multiple sex partners...or her view on sex. While my grade for this book is the same as for book one in the series (a solid B), it did introduce the only "ick" factor I've experienced while reading this series - Kaden, the shape-shifting horse whom Riley occasionally takes as a lover. I don't know why, considering I've read werewolf sex, werecat sex, and yes, even werecoyote sex, but for some reason, sex with a horse after you've ridden him in human form to safety just freaks me out.

In this installment of the series, Riley's vampire nature begins to assert itself as a result of drugs she was secretly given by one of her lovers, which could have devastating affects on her fertility. Riley's fertility is one of the series' continuing plot points, and any woman who has gone through any kind of infertility in her life will be able to relate to the emotions she experiences. I know I did.

Riley and Rhoan's work at the Directorate introduces them to different kinds of beings. By the end of Kissing Sin we've been introduced to monster spiders and the Fravardin, guardian angels that have a basis in Persian mythology. An unknown menace discovered during the course of Full Moon Rising becomes more fully realized in this second book - battle lines are squarely set between the Directorate and genetically created super-wolves and vampires run amok. Again, a social issue with relevance for today is tackled in such a way that the reader forgets there's a "ripped from the headlines" quality to it.

Tempting Evil, the series' third release, was my least favorite; it "only" earned a B- from me. That said, though, what makes this series work better than most urban fantasy is Arthur's ability in the area of characterization. I think I've enjoyed this series more than the seven books I read in the Anita Blake series because the latter was more or less all action. To be sure, action pervades the Guardian series, but there's a grounding and examination of character that goes far beyond Blake's "kick-ass-ness".

With each book additional characters are introduced; in Tempting Evil Riley works with a blind psychic (who returns in the most recent release) and a spirit lizard whom she gains as an ally. This is on a par with most of the urban fantasy I've read where each book in a series widens the world of monsters and/or magic.

As I mentioned earlier, Riley's position in the Directorate changes throughout the course of the series. Here she's more involved in dangerous encounters that force her to become more violent and Guardian-like. By the end of this book, which brings to culmination the genetics storyline only hinted at in book one and more fully explored in book two, there's no going back. Even though this is my least favorite of the five books to date, I still recommend it. Subsequent books are more episodic in nature, except that it takes one more book for Riley's nemesis, introduced in book one, to be dealt with once and for all.

The fourth book in Arthur's series is Dangerous Games. In it Riley faces off against Gautier, her nemesis, goes through the wringer - with the reader along for the ride - in her on-again, off-again relationship with Quinn, and tries to find a brutal serial murder whose crimes baffle everyone at the Directorate, including her very old and seen-it-all vampire boss. Of course, everything is inter-connected, but how it all comes together isn't revealed until late into the story.

Introduced to Riley's world in this installment to the series are demons and a dragon. And, as part of her investigation, she quite possibly gets in over her head with a sexy bartender who's into some very kinky stuff. Is the author warning us about the dangers of following your sexual desires as far as they take you? Perhaps, but if she is, it's not a moral warning; just one involving common sense and protecting yourself from physical harm.

Some readers came away from this book with an intense dislike of Quinn, who clearly manipulated Riley during the course of the book, and though he's closer to accepting the Riley's inner wolf, he's still got a long way to go. And, yes, he was more than a bit of a pr_ck, but he had centuries to pick up that baggage, so if Arthur rehabilitates him with Riley, I'll be okay with it...just as if Charlaine Harris decides Bill deserves another chance with Sookie.

I actually just finished Embraced by Darkness, the most recent release in Arthur's series, so it's very fresh in my mind. I've not quite settled on a grade, although it most assuredly is in the B range. The book explores what it was like growing up as a half-breed in a wolf pack after the current alpha forces Riley to investigate the disappearance of his granddaughter. Unless she does what he asks, he'll kill her mother, which is well within his rights as alpha. Riley is also involved in another investigation during the course of the book: What is causing men to brutally murder their girlfriends/wives in an unimaginably violent way?

As a result of experimental drugs given to her against her will in book one, Riley's already precarious fertility is endangered, but new abilities are making themselves known. One is her ability to see the souls of the newly departed, which is why she's the Guardian brought in to solve these horrific murders. Another of her new abilities manifests itself right before the resolution of the disappearing granddaughter storyline.

While the book is chock full of action and adventure, Riley and her brother Rhoan's relationship remains a steady influence in both of their lives. The advice they give to each other regarding their love lives is a little like the blind leading the blind, which is of particular importance in this installment because of the focus on Riley and her current lover Kellen. Kellen is wealthy, sexy, and very much the alpha wolf. He's also dark-skinned, which presents a terrific visual considering Riley's red hair and pale skin (think your classic Irish beauty, or perhaps, since Arthur is Australian, Nicole Kidman). Throughout the course of the book, he pushes Riley toward exclusivity, but the reader realizes, before Riley does, that he is handling the danger she lives in because of her job just like lovers/spouses of police officers/firefighters often do when confronted with the daily danger facing the one they love. What's so poignant about the situation is that because of Riley's genetics and the drugs she was given against her will, it's not like her government would allow her to retire from the Directorate if she wanted to. She may be a werewolf, but we've all been in dilemmas that aren't "fair".

Because Keri Arthur has engaged so many of us with this series, I thought an interview was in order. She graciously agreed to answer my questions; our Q&A follows.

When you picture a werewolf, do you see a wolf in your mind or a half-man/half-wolf?

I see a proper wolf. Never did like those half man-half wolf versions. There's nothing sexy in becoming a big hairy human <g>

Please describe Urban Fantasy to me, and the authors who influenced you in this arena. Do you consider your Riley Jenson books to be Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance?

I’ve always considered urban fantasy to be fantasy elements in a modern, urban environment. I don’t know that I’ve had any direct influences in the urban fantasy area, though. The only one I can really think of is Mercedes Lackey’s Children of the Night. I read that, and said, “that’s exactly what I’m trying to do - and there is a market for it!” And of course, then LKH came along and proved just how much of a market there actually was. If I was going to name influences, then I’d have to say Dick Francis, James Herbert and Stephen King, simply because I love the way each of those writers suck you into a story and make you care.

I’ve always considered the Riley Jenson series to be Dark Urban Fantasy.

The covers for your Riley Jenson books in the U.S. differ greatly from those in the U.K. (depicted below). Which do you prefer, and why?

I think each cover is designed for its market, but if I had to name a favourite, then I’d say the US covers. I love the look and feel of them, and think they give a very good indication of what the series is about

The cover of your second book, on the arc I have (although it must have been changed at some point) referred to you as the “rising star in paranormal romance”. What did you think about it, and were you concerned that romance readers who weren’t expecting it would be bothered by the multiple partners and lack of a traditional HEA?

Well, I do write paranormal romances [for ImaJinn], and it’s nice to be considered a rising star. <g>

But I don’t consider the Riley books romance. They’re dark urban fantasy with a strong romantic theme that’s drawn out across the series. And I was worried when it was decided to market them as romance, but, as an author, you have to trust your publisher. And I think Bantam did a great job with the blurbs and the covers, which really gave the reader a good indication of the series direction.

Which isn’t saying there wasn’t backlash. There’s always going to be when the conventions of any genre is broken and people are disappointed. But Riley will get her HEA eventually - the romance writer in me wouldn’t have it any other way.

This one comes from my husband. When in wolf form, let’s say Riley went out to catch rabbits. What if one of them was a wererabbit?

Weres can sense other weres, so she'd be able to scent the difference between a rabbit and a were rabbit.

That's pretty much what I told him, but he looked at me funny, so I told him I'd ask you. <g> More seriously, though, you deal with some "issues" in these books. I'm not quite sure, though if I'm simply trying to intellectualize something that’s just plain fun, or was it a conscious effort on your part to try and write “deeper”?

I think, more than anything, it was a conscious effort on my part to make the characters "real." We all have problems in our lives, things that happen that are not only unfair but totally beyond our control. We all have emotional issues and hang-ups, whether we admit it or not. In life, we either deal with the problems - or not - and I wanted to show my characters reacting the same way.

When it comes to Rhoan’s sexual orientation, that was a very conscious decision. From a personal stand point, I don’t believe sexuality should alter the way we look at or interact with people. Neither should race or color. People should be judged on who they are, how that act, and what they do, rather than sexuality or race. But people do make those sort of judgments all the time - it’s a fact of life in this world of ours - which is why you’ll also find things like wolf shifters thinking they’re superior to werewolves because of the weres sexual practices. I want Riley’s world to be believable, and to do that, I have to show the good, the indifferent, and the plain ugly.

Riley's vulnerability when it comes to the men in her life, particularly at the ends of a couple of the books...can you talk about that?

I think the ending of book four shows a certain amount of hope, even though Riley sent Quinn packing. She feels free and is looking forward to the future. Book five is the opposite, and has certainly galvanized a lot of people. I’ve had many emails from readers saying that they hated me or that they weren’t ever going to pick up another book of mine. In all honesty, I did expect a reaction from some people, because the fifth book did end abruptly, but I’d like to hope I also stayed true to the book and the characters. There was nothing I could write after that scene with Kellen that would make it better. We’ve all been in that sort of situation before - whether the heartbreak was caused by a lover, a relation, or a friend - and really, when have words ever healed the hurt? Only time does that - and that’s what Riley needed. But that was something I really couldn’t show in the book’s ending. It would have just felt tacked on, and out of place.

What's next for Riley and Rhoan - do you see an end in sight for them, and how many more books might that be?

I have a total of nine books planned. I know the emotional arc for those books (rather than the action plotline), and know exactly what will happen to both her and Rhoan. The series could end with book nine, but if it goes on, then I’ll have to find a new emotional arc. It could be Riley learning to deal with everything that has happened and getting used to a one on one relationship, it could be something else. At this stage, I can’t really say.

Even if you're not a reader who likes reading books with "monsters", I hope some of you will re-consider and perhaps try some urban fantasy. The worldbuilding may not be quite the same as reading about an historical period, but there's a richness that's nonetheless compelling to the best of the genre. It's not all monsters and mayhem, either; there are relationships, humor, and because these are not humans, a whole new way of looking at the world around us that widens the reader's experience.

While my introduction was through LKH's Anita Blake series, the level of characterization she attains in that series cannot match what Arthur does in the Guardian books (LKH does far better in that regard in her Merry Gentry series). Still, I don't know that I'd recommend reading about Riley Jenson unless you're a fairly adventurous reader as the books are pretty far out there. A better suggestion for those not quite willing to take that big a leap would be to pick up the first several books in Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, or some of the Women of the Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong.

Just as romance is changing as a result of the influence of erotic romance and increasing hybridization of SF/F, it is also changing as a result of urban fantasy. The lines between genres in many ways is thinning out as authors like Arthur move back and forth between them. I like all the variety, even if it is a bitch deciding how a certain book should be categorized in our database.

Questions To Consider:

Do you read/have you ever read urban fantasy novels? How do you define the term?

If you've not read them, why not? Have you ever been tempted, or do you simply believe they have nothing to offer you?

Those who read or have read urban fantasy previously, what attracts you to the books? Which have you enjoyed most, and why? Which did you least enjoy, and why?

Do you have a "monster" preference? How do you envision that "monster" in your mind?

If you've read any of the Guardian series, what were your reactions, and why?

What do you think urban fantasy can bring to the romance genre, and vice versa?

Further defining terms: How do you define alternate reality fiction, alternate reality romance, fantasy fiction, fantasy romance, and paranormal romance? Should we create "urban fantasy romance"?

Should ATBF ever include columns on non romance-genre fiction? When you started to read this column, did you wonder what in the hell had gotten into me that I would write about such a topic for ATBF? Did I manage to change your mind by the end?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, with Keri Arthur

 

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