Urban Fantasy: a first glance

I had read and loved Tim Powers’ fantasy stories set in the past of Reformation-era Venice, the Europe of the Romantic poets, the Caribbean of the Pirates, and a post-apocalyptic future. But Last Call was amazing. Set in a contemporary Las Vegas where gamblers’ must always have cigarettes in hand and drinks at their side as they gamble so that they can detect the moments when losing a tarot-derived hand would mean losing their souls. (The Las Vegas episode at the beginning of season 4 of Angel was a thrill to me just because it almost seemed like I was in Powers’ Las Vegas. One could easily imagine that his Bugsy would play tennis with a vampire at night.)

And it only got better with Powers’ next book, Expiration Date, where one discovers that most of the homeless in LA eat rocks because they are really ghosts–the continuing wave form of a once living human body–who are injesting material to maintain solidity. The lesser ghosts are trapped in Palindromes to be snorted by some addict, a participant in the city’s thriving underground ghost-drug culture.

There were things I missed about Powers’ earlier works, but these new ones really appealed to me. They opened up a new genre, urban fantasy. I have no idea when the genre really began. Perhaps it has really been around all along. But at some point, fantasy stories set in the contemporary world rather than in the distant past or on another world have become more popular than before.

So I had a lot of hope for the Dresden Files. I thought the SciFi Channel episodes were fairly entertaining, and I have always had a soft spot for gumshoe mysteries (I could have easily started this post talking about how much Raymond Chandler has meant to me). So a PI who is a wizard seemed like a risk-free proposition.

(Another big draw was that this was urban fantasy with a male protagonist. As much as I loved the Cameron/Whedon supergirl of the turn of the millennium…. well, I thought Agent Smith was cool too, but got tired of him later, watching thousands of them fight Neo. It’s like a self-replicating virus cloning half the paperback book covers on the SF&F shelves at every bookstore. How many different ways can you pose a cool chick? It is becoming a cliche.)

So, to get around to my point finally, I expected to really enjoy the series.

So far I’ve gotten through the first two. Not sure if I will go through the rest of them. The first one was OK. It worked as a mystery with a supernatural element and a final showdown that was satisfying. The second one was much less so. It read more like the plot of one of the Alien movies with various types of wolf creatures subbing for the alien. It simply wasn’t what I wanted for a PI story. Too much John McLain substituting for Phillip Marlowe.

Actually, that’s not quite it. Harry Dresden is constantly portrayed as weak and vulnerable yet using magic and wits to overcome his enemies. But it really doesn’t work in a believable way in Fool Moon. He seems to spend over half the book an almost dead (should be dead) state, and yet miraculously remains alive. I realize that a wizard is supposed to be able to do things that seem miraculous, but in this case “miraculously” simply means “inexplicably” or “incredibly.”

(For another take, you can read a brief summary of the whole series here.)

The character is still interesting to me and the two novels have elements that will lead to a series story arc that also interests me. But I haven’t really felt like the books were worth my time so far. Obviously, the fact that the Dresden Files continue to be best-sellers gives you plenty of reason to be suspicious of my negativity. I can’t deny that I might try to get the third one from the library some time in the hope that it improves.

My experience with the books makes me wonder if any other genre SF&F books are any better.  Since these seems to be selling at well as or better than any other, I assumed they were the cream of the crop.

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