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Strange Cities

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

If pre-industrial secondary-world settings are the norm for adventure fantasy (and for much Black Gate fiction), I’d like to detour today into some quite different fantasylands. A comment by braak last week on the differences between sf and fantasy started me thinking about fantasy works in which the mysterious is made extremely quotidian. I am writing without the books at hand, so I hope that if my memory is faulty (it usually is) someone will correct me.

The first are a pair of books by Walter Jon Williams, a writer better known for his straight-up sf. These are Metropolitan and its sequel, City on Fire, both Nebula nominees and the latter a Hugo contender as well. They are set in a roofed-over world-city powered by a geomantic substance called plasm, which accumulates naturally in (or under) buildings. The main character is a young woman named Aiah, who gets a job with the public utility that oversees collection and use of plasm. She finds a huge unmapped pool of plasm which she does not report properly… and then becomes entangled with a shady politician/mage named Constantine, whose protege she becomes. The ambiguous emotional resonances of her relationship with Constantine never fully came alive for me, but there’s plenty of action and intrigue and mystery, and I loved the steampunk-y bureaucratization of magic and the truly urban feel. A lot of people read the books as sf, but I would class them as a sort of proto-New Weird, only without the slipstream element. Back when they came out I had a conversation with Walter in which he ran down the list of fantasy tropes he had intentionally incorporated into the books, and they are all there, but one thing I have always found interesting about his work is the way his characters, even or especially his protagonists, are always morally ambiguous in some way. Constantine may be the wise mage/teacher figure, but he is also the dark mage of the books, and Aiah makes some pretty dubious choices of her own. He had a third book planned out, but couldn’t sell it, and as he supports himself with his writing he moved on to other things.

Then there are two wonderfully weird books by Rachel Pollack: Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency. Set in an alternate present day, they also incorporate magic and spirits into the most ordinary aspects of everyday life: e.g., a character has a significant dream and goes down to city hall to have flacks at the office of oneiromancy interpret it. Temporary Agency, my favorite of the two, concerns a CIA operation run out of a Manhattan office where they have illegally employed a demon. A set-piece that by itself is worth the price of the book is a visit to the New York Stock Exchange floor, where the traders are all wielding charms and amulets. I’m not sure whether the books count as adventure fantasy; they are plain unclassifiable.

Sean Stewart wrote a series of alternate present-day novels in which magic has flooded back into the world, beginning with Resurrection Man and culminating in the World Fantasy Award winner Galveston. My favorite of his books is Mockingbird, a WFA nominee, set in magical present not quite the same as the others. His writing is arguably more magical realism than adventure fantasy, and is not chockablock with breathless action, but it contains indelible scenes, like the Mockingbird protagonist’s drive through night-time Houston in the “Muertomobile,” supernatural entities in the back seat.

Finally, let me unequivocally recommend Tim Powers’ Last Call, still IMO the best of his books. The setting is contemporary but not alternate, and the story involves a professional poker player, ghosts, Bugsy Siegel, the founding of the Las Vegas casino industry, the Fisher King of the West, and a fateful poker game with Tarot on a houseboat in Lake Mead to determine who will be the same. I’m told that the Tarot poker Powers invented for the book is now played by many fans. Declare, his other WFA winner, is a WWII espionage thriller with djinns and the Ark of the Covenant. Powers’ flaw as a writer is throwing in not just the kitchen sink, but the washer, dryer and every other household appliance, and Declare suffers from that, but it is definitely worth a look as well.

1 Comment »

  1. Oh! Last Call was one of the first urban-fantasy (I guess?) books that I read. It came at a convenient time, when my volcanic disillusionment with that weird standard 11th century sword and sorcery setting was beginning.

    I second that recommendation.

    Comment by braak - April 16, 2009 12:11 am


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