The strength of Mur Lafferty’s A Shambling Guide to New York City is the character of the city itself. The New York she describes is one populated by the familiar tropes and characters of horror and urban fantasy, but because of the vignettes from the fictional guide book and how she uses our protagonists, this novel feels like a fresh and fun book that you want to spend time in.
We begin with Zoe, who has moved to New York after losing her job and her lover. She is seeking employment in the publishing world, and specifically, should she find it, the travel guide sector. Fortunately, Phil is looking for someone just like her. But not quite. Phil is a vampire and tries to dissuade Zoe from applying. Despite her recent past, she’s still got balls so pursues the job until Phil finally reveals to her the dark secret of New York. Vampires and zombies and magic are real. The Public Works is the human’s monster police force, only the monsters hate being called that. They are a community of like minded but different species known collectively as coterie. (coterie, noun, a small group of people with shared interests or tastes, especially one that is exclusive of other people).
The first half of the novel is fairly plotless, as Zoe finds out about the newly opened up world about her, while getting to grips with her new job. The plan is to write a guide for the coterie who both live and visit New York; the titular travel guide. Each chapter has a snippet from the guide as a way of introducing part of this new world. They are often humorous, and are probably the most interesting part of Lafferty’s novel. So we meet Morgen and Gwen and John; a water sprite, a death goddess and an incubus respectively. There are plenty of other characters and fresh ideas too. A mentor character who is a granny-type. A baker who is a type of incubus who feeds of the appreciation of his eaten pastries. Zombies who retain their higher brain functions providing they eat plenty of fresh brains. Restaurants for the coterie serving whatever is required. All described with a certain amount of wit and imagination.
And then odd things start to happen. Zoe’s past starts to creep up on her. Only now does the book start to feel like a story, rather than simply a clever world-building exercise. By this point, however, you’re only here with the goodwill offered by the interesting characters, rather than the events that are happening to them. It almost feels like Lafferty had a great idea and a fun bunch of monsters/coterie but no tale to tell. There’s an opportunity to talk more about gangs, cults, racism, bullying and other issues associated with minorities, but these don’t get any real thought, especially when you can just turn a plane into a golem and have the showdown and big reveal in Central Park. There’s nothing wrong with Lafferty’s writing – although I wasn’t particularly bowled over by the prose – and her imagination is clearly full of cracking ideas.
I did enjoy A Shambling Guide to New York City, but was disappointed by lack of proper story. The blurb on the cover aims the book at fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I think there was much more depth in an average episode of Buffy, but there are similarities in tone. Of course, it is a journey of discovery for Zoe and a chance to put pay to her past, but I wanted a lightly comic urban fantasy to have a little more depth, threat and meaning. What I got was a fun monster, sorry coterie, mash.