Naked City edited by Ellen Datlow – review

By on October 18, 2012

Urban fantasy, as a subgenre, has seen a noticable slide in definition since it started.  For many readers, the idea of what constitutes urban fantasy was developed by writers like Charles DeLint and Neil Gaiman, along with Terri Windling’s “Bordertown” series.  Perceptions have shifted, and as the mingling  the romance and fantasy genres has become more frequent , the delineations between paranormal romance and urban fantasy have grown blurry.   Whether you like or hate the change in attitude of the publishing industry, the fact remains that it is happening.  Reading an anthology like Ellen Datlow”s Naked City makes me almost unutterably happy, largely because I am one of those readers who wishes that paranormal romance would stay paranormal romance and urban fantasy would stay urban fantasy.

These stories all take place in a city.  Each of them features something unusual and magical (whether for good or ill) happening to the characters.  Because this anthology is edited by Datlow, most of the stories take a decidedly darker bent.  They trip neatly along that fine line between dark fantasy and horror.  If you’re looking for shiny, happy, sparkly stories, you’d best look elsewhere.  These stories are more akin to accidentally stepping off the sidewalk and planting your foot firmly in the gutter.  You may find some shining bits of loose change, but there’s a whole lot of grit and grime in there to accompany it.

Several of these stories do take on the characteristics of a mystery story.  A few of them have professional sleuths, or, at least the reasonable approximation of a pro.  Most of them have ordinary people who are just doing their best to get to the bottom of what’s happening all around them in an effort to make their world make sense.  They don’t always adapt to those circumstances admirably, but they cope, or, at least provide an interesting story as they try to regain their footing.

Jim Butcher contributed “Curses” to this volume.  It’s a Dresden files short story, and for anyone curious about what the novels are like, “Curses” is an exceptional way to get your feet wet.  It doesn’t require much background to the series, though there are a few references here and there to some of the earlier books.  It’s not going to make a reader feel lost, and it’s not going to spoil reading the books, either.  The story itself involves the infamous curse on the Chicago Cubs.  Harry Dresden is hired to lift the curse, which requires him to find out who put the curse on them in the first place.  It’s a story with both humor and heart, and it’s the kind of story that ought to make most baseball fans get a warm, fuzzy feeling.  Clearly, Mr. Butcher is one of us.  If he isn’t, he really fakes it well.

“How the Pooka Came to New York City” by Delia Sherman is a story that just feels like a modern fairy tale in the Hans Christian Anderson tradition. Liam O’Casey goes to America because he has almost no other option.  He is accompanied by an enormous black dog.  The dog gets better care than Liam takes of himself, something that others around him note with no small measure of superstition. The dog is, of course, a Pooka, and he’s been forced to follow Liam O’Casey to America because Liam saved the Pooka’s life.

For any fans of the Swordspoint books by Ellen Kushner, Naked City has a very rare and lovely gem for you, “The Duke of Riverside.”  The story covers how Richard St. Vier came to meet Alec, told mostly from the perspective of an outsider who frequents Rosalie’s.  It ties in beautifully with the series and shows off the magic Kushner can work even in short form.  It carries all of the sensory triggers of the books, stays consistent with the tone, and adds a significant layer to what readers of the books already know.  Even more remarkable, the story does so without requiring much, if any, familiarity with the series.

Anyone who might wonder what it would be like to deal in real estate in a city crawling with supernatural beings can get an idea from “Priced to Sell” by Naomi Novik.  The story chronicles the struggles of agents trying to match said beings with appropriate dwellings.  It’s not easy, especially when some clients can’t be around sunlight, some clients have special needs with regard to the solitude of the neighborhoods, and some properties have issues like a wall of live, scuttling beetles because of a nasty divorce and the ensuing fight.  “Priced to Sell” is one of those stories that, even though it’s satisfying, feels like it could be bigger, at least one novel bigger, just from the sheer enormity of what everyone involved has to deal with to get the right client to the right home.

One of the most unsettling stories is “The Skinny Girl” by Lucius Shepard.  Set in Mexico City, it’s the story of a photographer, Hugo, who has made his name taking pictures of corpses.  His photographs are famous due to a lingering sensuality about them that isn’t found in other works.  One day, he finds himself kidnapped, taken to a nightmarish mansion run by a woman known locally as “The Skinny Girl”; she is rumored to be Saint Death herself.  Hugo isn’t sure what to make of his surroundings at first, but as he discovers more, he grows more disturbed by the implications of the encounter.

In Naked City you will find stories that take place in cities both new and old, fictional and real, elegant and sqaulid.  Some of them are clenched in the iron fist of dictators, some of them just cycle on as they always have, seemingly running independent of the people dwelling in them.  I would definitely recommend this anthology to anyone who is looking for a cross-section of what urban fantasy can involve, especially if they’re looking to move beyond paranormal romance.  There are funny stories and dark stories in this book.  If you don’t mind a little bit of horror mixed into your fantasy, then you’ll have a lot to look forward to in this volume.

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