Tag Archives: urban fantasy

Taking Refuge

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time re-reading one of my most favourite series of books. They feature a wisecracking wizard named Harry (no, not that one) who – along with his friends and sidekicks, and an assortment of spirits, ghosts, demons, fallen angels and agents of God’s will – fights evil around his home city of Chicago. I was really enjoying them, not only for what they were but also for the memories that reading them brought back to me – until, that is, I got to the last one I had bought.

Photo Credit: joelogon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: joelogon via Compfight cc

I should have remembered that there was a reason I stopped buying these books. I never collected the full series, despite having been a devoted fan, and I guess over the years I just convinced myself I just got lost in a wide world of other books, where shiny distractions abound. However, no. There were reasons why I stopped, and I have now remembered what they were.

Since my last purchase I had entirely forgotten the plot of the final book I own in this series. It starts out very cleverly indeed, narrated from an unexpected and hard to pull off viewpoint (someone, without wishing to give away spoilers, is ‘beyond the mortal coil’ and tells the story from the perspective of their own afterlife, or a version of same) and this means there’s plenty of scope for philosophising and deep thought about what constitutes life, anyway, and how important it seems to be remembered, and remembered well. The characters I love are still there, by and large, and there are even some poignant bits where unexpected people are met on other planes of existence and the truth behind a murder is revealed – but still.

Still.

So much about this book let me down, with a major bang. So much of it fell so flat that I never bought another in the series. This is important, and I’d forgotten all about it.

The lead character in the series (who I do love, I must admit) likes to think of himself as an old-fashioned gentleman. Maybe he is. But because the books are all written from inside his perspective, we see what he sees. We, therefore, see all women he encounters through the lens of his hormones, and that can sometimes be a problem. These aren’t books for children or even teenagers (though I’m sure teenagers would enjoy them); these are adult urban fantasy books, and they’re clever and well-plotted and funny and fast-moving and boy, it hurts me to even admit how much I hated the last one I bought. But I did. Because there’s only so much ‘appreciation’ a female reader can take, when it comes to this character’s perspective on female characters. There are only so many descriptions of long, lean legs and fantastic bodies and undulating hips and so on that can be borne before it all gets too much. F’rinstance, there is a character who is much younger than the hero, whom he has known since she was a child – but every single chance he gets, the physical beauty and appeal of this character (who is now, of course, a grown woman) is described. ‘I’m not interested in the kid,’ we’ll be told. ‘But still. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her beauty.’

Ack. No. No, all right? Tell us once, maybe. Give us a description. And then stop. We do not need to be reminded, all the time. We do not need to imagine the lead character as a lecherous old twit. We do not need it.

Women are assessed primarily by how hot the lead character finds them. If they’re not sexually appealing, he’ll be quietly respectful of them. If they are sexually appealing (and a surprising amount of them are), he’ll let this be the most significant aspect of their character, despite everything else they’ve got going on – and admittedly, these books do have some of the best and most kick-ass female characters I’ve read, including a firebrand cop and an actual Valkyrie, for God’s sake. There is a wide range of female awesomeness on display here – we just have to wade through a curtain of breasts and wiggly walks and well-turned calves to get there, and jeesh, does that get tired after a while.

But the thing that upset me the most about this book, the final one I bought, the one after which I thought: After this, no more? The resolution to one of the most complex and painful and interesting love-situations in the series.

Well. I say ‘resolution’. I mean ‘cop-out’.

We have characters who, due to their complex magical heritage, can’t show one another physical affection without incurring serious injury because they share true love, something which is anathema to the sort of demons they carry in their souls. So far, so brilliantly Buffy-and-Angel, except even better. But then, at the end of this book? It all gets solved. Through a pointless, stupid, utterly male-gazed, borderline misogynistic and completely irritating plot device that – if it was really how the author had intended to solve this painful, complex and interesting issue – could have been utilised at any point during the course of the previous five or six books. But it wasn’t. And so it seemed like a ‘whoops, look, we’ve got to get rid of this thing here, and so here’s how we’ll do it, right, with a gratuitous and pandering scene which will really appeal to the boys. Heh heh!’

Yeah. Not so much.

Photo Credit: saebois via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: saebois via Compfight cc

So. I finished the book. I put it away, sighing regretfully as I did so, among its peers. (It’s a hardback, and it’s pretty, so at least there’s that). And then I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy for YA readers, and I started reading that instead.

And you know something? I’m a much happier reader today. That’s the beauty of books, and of having stuffed bookshelves which you can visit at any point – there is always something else there to read, and some new-old stories in which to take shelter, and no bookish injury is ever permanent.

And in five years’ time I’ll probably re-read the problematic series, once again forgetting why I stopped the last time, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy my righteous indignation all over again. Fun!

Wednesday Writing – ‘Memento Mori’

 

Memento Mori

I was hurrying down Morrison when he came at me, straight out of the alley beside the old grocery store. I put my head down and ignored him at first, sure he was just one of those guys who hadn’t taken to the process so well, but he was determined to catch my eye.

‘Hey,’ he muttered, shuffling over. ‘Hey, man. I gotta -‘

‘Can’t stop, buddy,’ I called, holding up a hand, wondering when the government was going to face facts and segregate these things. ‘In a hurry, y’know?’

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Just need a minute.’ A faint stink billowed out of him, a memory of breath.

‘Don’t you got a job to go to, friend?’ I asked. That’s the point, isn’t it? I didn’t say it out loud, but he had to know I was thinking it. Anybody would be.

He blinked and made no answer, swaying on his feet.

‘Man, I really am sorry. Okay? Really. But if I’m late for work I get to hear about it all week. You understand, right? Nothin’ personal.’ I’d reached out to shake his hand before I could stop myself, but his fists were buried deep in his rancid pockets. He froze. I glanced up at his face properly for an instant then, and he just stared at me out of wet, sloppy eyes. I couldn’t tell what colour they’d been; the process had washed it away.

I shook the guy off – his smell, his voice, the pallor of his face – as I kept walking, and by the time I finished work for the day I’d forgotten all about him. I walked home through empty streets. Apartment buildings rose into the dusk all around, dark and cold. My own building had thirty percent occupancy, and I knew I was one of the lucky ones. When I closed my door behind me I didn’t feel like something finally buried. I knew if I shouted, someone would hear me.

They might not come. But they would hear.

I saw him as I came near that old grocery store again, the one that had never been open during my lifetime. There he was, waiting in the shadows. Had he even moved since this morning?

‘Look,’ I said, before he could speak. ‘I told you before, all right? I can’t talk to you.’

‘Just, please,’ he said. He looked worse than before. Dark hollows beneath his eyes threatened to swallow his face.

‘Weren’t you at your job today? Huh? Did you just stand around here all day? Were you this useless when you were alive, too?’

‘Buddy, come on,’ he replied. ‘I gotta show you. Gotta show someone.’

I wasn’t sure why those words pulled at me, but thirty seconds later I was following him – a Refurb, an actual flesh-and-blood walking talking dead guy – into this alley. It smelled like hell.

Then, he stopped. I heard a noise, and looked down.

A kid. A kid lay on the ground, white-faced and wide-eyed, breathing hard as she stared up at me. She couldn’t have been any more than nine. It looked like maybe her leg was broken – certainly, she wasn’t going anywhere fast. This is good, flashed across my mind. The bounty for returning runaways was high. How she’d managed to escape from the Farm was anyone’s guess, but all I knew was they’d pay to get her back.

‘You animal,’ I growled, turning on the Refurb. I clenched my fists. This has to look good, I told myself.

‘No! Mister!’ The kid’s voice was like a whistle. ‘He helped me! I fell, and -‘

‘Enough,’ I told her, never taking my eyes off the Refurb. They weren’t supposed to hurt the living, but I guess you never knew. How can any of us be sure?

‘No,’ said the Refurb. His eyes were flabby. Blank. He’s just instinct, I told myself. Wrapped up in a body. He’s barely more than a machine. ‘No. Please.’ He took a shuffling step back and slid on something in the garbage piled there, falling back against the sacks. I took my chance.

A swift, hard jab to the abdomen, and he groaned so bad that I almost believed he felt it. Another, and another. There was barely any resistance in his soft flesh.

‘No! Arnie!‘ screamed the kid. ‘Stop hurting him!’

‘Arnie, is it?’ I said, bracing myself for another punch. ‘You’re a dead man, Arnie. No pun intended. You know that, right? Even if I hadn’t found you hurting this girl, or whatever it is I can make ’em believe you’d been doing up here, I’d probably have killed you just for being lazy. You’re going in the ground, my friend. Nobody needs a Refurb who won’t work.’

He looked up at me then, and his watery eyes overflowed. The barest twitch of his face could have been a smile.

I threw the killer punch. Arnie’s jaw shattered, and he lay still.

Is there a fine for smashing up a Refurb? I thought, shaking out my fist. Hardly matters. The money I’ll get for returning the kid will more than cover it.

‘Okay, little lady,’ I called, hauling myself up off the trash-pile, leaving Arnie’s twice-dead body where it lay. ‘Come on, now. You ready?’

I turned, but she was gone.

‘His name wasn’t Arnie,’ I heard her say. I squinted into the gloom, but there was no sign of her. ‘Well, maybe. It could’ve been. I call them all Arnie.’

‘You – what? Come on, kid. I don’t have time for this.’ I turned, looking, but besides me and the cold Arnie, there was nobody in this alley.

‘It takes years, you know,’ she continued, from her unseen perch. ‘The average Retirement application. And it can only be approved once a Refurb’s given at least twenty years of service. Don’t matter how many times it messes up – nobody cares. A Refurb’s gotta work until it falls apart.’ She sighed. ‘And they’re programmed not to hurt themselves, each other, or the living.’

‘So?’ I wished I could see her. The flesh on my back started to crawl. ‘What’s this got to do with you?’

‘Call it a public service,’ she replied. ‘They pay me whatever they’ve got, and I get them killed. Win-win.’

I looked back at Arnie. ‘You mean he – he wanted this?’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ She sounded angry, now. ‘Worked hard all his life, knowing that all he’d get for dying would be a day off?

‘I – but, it’s how it’s done,’ I said. ‘We need the labour.’

‘Right.’ The kid sounded further away now. ‘Tell yourself that when you’re on your deathbed.’ I heard a tiny scuffle, and a small grunt of effort, and a tiny shadow moving against the night.

‘Hey,’ I shouted. ‘Come back here! I’ve got to get you home!’ There was no answer. ‘Little girl!’

The wind skirled round the alley, tossing some papers and loosened trash. A cat flashed its eyes at me in the darkness, then vanished.

When I got home I called the authorities. Told ’em I’d seen a bunch of thugs harassing a Refurb near an alley off Morrison; I couldn’t intervene, because it was one against five. Possibly six. Said I hoped the guy would be okay. Mentioned a runaway kid, and asked about a reward.

Then I went to bed, but the darkness had a weight in it, and I was afraid to close my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Witterings

Today’s piece of flash is inspired by the following image:

Image: gratisography.com

Image: gratisography.com

Drawing Down

‘Come on! Up here. I see another one.’ My lungs stretched as I picked up the pace. Marius, long-legged, sped ahead, already focused on the next corner. ‘Jakob! Hurry!’ he called, over his shoulder. I could hear the fear in his voice.

I was almost there when I made the mistake of looking up. Over Marius’ shoulder, I could see it, bare and brazen. Its foul power stopped me in my tracks, and I skidded on the wet ground. I couldn’t help the gush of nausea that overwhelmed me.

‘This is the worst yet,’ I heard Marius whisper. He raised a hand as though he was going to touch it, before realising what he was doing. His fingers retracted into a fist, and he hissed in pain, or anger, or both.

‘He’s desperate, brother,’ I said, picking myself up off the ground. My legs shook. I still couldn’t bring myself to look directly at the image sloppily scratched on the wall before us, the bricks of this flimsy human building already fizzing and melting beneath it. ‘He wants to overwhelm us.’

‘It’s working,’ muttered Marius. Then, the image began to glow with an unearthly light. Marius fell back, almost stumbling off the edge of the kerb. His eyes never left the wall, running around the horrifying shape as though seeking a way to escape. It looked vaguely like a window – a scribbled sill above and below, and the colours within like a sash, like light on glass.

But if this was a window, it was one that should never have been opened.

‘Get ready,’ called Marius. ‘We don’t have long.’ He grasped the handle of his sword and drew it; I did likewise, a beat quicker. Together, we faced the window – and what was about to come through it. Our blades were dull and pockmarked, but they were sharp as midnight and quick as death. I hefted mine, feeling my sweat pool in my palm.

‘Jakob! There!‘ Marius turned to his right, and I tore my eyes away from the window just long enough to see the demon, our prey, less than a hundred yards away. Dressed in the skin of a human, a street dweller who’d once made a living drawing chalk portraits of passersby, it leered at us before taking off at a flat run. Its howl rippled down the alley as it vanished from sight.

‘As long as it’s got that damn chalk,’ gasped Marius, staring after it, ‘there’s no limit to how many portals it can create. We’ve got to stop it.’

‘Well, you’re faster than me, brother,’ I said, shifting my sword from hand to hand. I turned back to focus on the shimmering gateway forming in the wall before me. ‘I’ll get this portal sealed up, soon as my sword’s spilled a little demon blood. Go on! I’ll be right after you.’

Marius turned to me, his eyes pained.

‘You can’t face this alone,’ he said.

‘I sure stand a better chance than you do,’ I replied.

He started to say something else, but bit it back. He squeezed my shoulder before turning away. Within seconds, the sound of his footfalls had vanished, and I was alone.

I hefted my blade and planted my stance, hoping at least to give my brother enough time to slice off our prey’s drawing hand. Anything more than that, up to and including not getting myself killed, would be a bonus.

I charged the window, blade at the ready, hoping the demon hordes had never heard of the element of surprise.

Writerly Wednesday

The prompts from CAKE.shortandsweet were delayed today, so I went ahead and improvised: I created five sets of five words using a random word generator, and then I took the first word from the first set, the second from the second and so on until I had the following prompts:

Mile :: idiot :: brooch :: duck :: iron

Image: hdw.eweb4.com

Image: hdw.eweb4.com

Justice

The only problem with iron bullets is – of course – they kill humans, too. Mortflesh flowed around us like they were caught in a slipstream, their tiny, self-obsessed brains unseeing as we passed among them. Not for the first time, I wished for the freedom to fire at will, but I knew well the Council would have my powers if I dared to try it.
‘Where is he?’ muttered Klaas, beside me. ‘How is he hiding?’
‘Let’s hope he hasn’t embodied yet,’ I replied. My finger was light on the trigger of my weapon, concealed in a fold of my robe. ‘If he has, we may never find him.’
‘Chances are slim, surely?’ Klaas’s eyes flickered, gleaming golden, considering and discarding mortal faces one after another. ‘He hasn’t had long enough to find a subject.’
‘All he needs is one mortal willing to be an idiot,’ I pointed out. I saw Klaas nod, shrugging.
‘They are easy to fool,’ he agreed. ‘Something shiny – a brooch, or a bangle of jade – and they’ll do most anything.’
‘Not that you’ve tried it,’ I said, glancing at him.
‘Of course,’ he said, his voice like fresh milk, his eyes far from mine.
And then, I saw a flash between the trees ahead of us – light too pure to be mortal, too beautiful for this earth. The light of a fae, impossible to conceal.
‘Half a mile, dead ahead,’ I murmured to Klaas. He turned to face me again, the golden tang fading from his eyes. ‘Between the trees.’
He blinked, and looked. ‘I see it.’ His stance changed as he trained his eyes on the light, sparkling in the failing day. He took off at a run, mortflesh scattering either side of him. I followed, drawing my gun out of my cloak.
Within moments, we were within range. His light was so clear, so clear, that it made my eyes sting, but a mortal woman stood over him, arms outstretched, seemingly unaffected. I saw him turn to face us, baring his teeth in a hiss; the woman’s approach did not slow.
‘Come on, darlin’,’ she was saying. ‘Come on to Marie, now, and she’ll take good care o’ you.’ She dropped to a crouch, extending an arm toward him. ‘Who’d leave a tiny child on his own in a public park, eh? Who left you all alone?’
‘He’s glamoured,’ I said, and Klaas nodded. Behind the woman, the rogue fae glimmered, his mocking eyes gazing up at us. Five more seconds, and it would be too late; five more seconds, and he would be embodied. Beyond our reach.
‘Ma’am!’ I yelled, desperate. ‘Step away!’
She jerked in shock, turning.
‘What’s going on? Who are -‘ She caught sight of my gun, and shrieked a little, falling backward. ‘Get away from this child!’ she shouted, extending her arms to shield the creature behind her.
‘That’s not a child!’ called Klaas, waving a free hand at the woman, gesturing for her to move.
‘The hell it’s not!’ she replied, shuffling backward. Behind her, the fae laughed, silently. ‘Come on, darlin’. Let’s get out of here and away from these horrible men.’ She turned to me. ‘I’m callin’ the cops, right now!’
‘You must trust us!’ I shouted. ‘Duck, ma’am! Please!’
‘Young man, I – ‘ she began, but the rest of her words were cut off as a gurgling cry tore itself from her throat. The fae had made its move. Two sparkling hands plunged into the woman’s mouth, swiftly followed by its glimmering arms. It lifted its face to sneer at us before ducking into the human flesh that would give it sanctuary, making it immune to our judgement. The woman flopped on the ground, her arms and legs thrashing, her face turning scarlet as she struggled to breathe. Her eyes were filled with tears.
‘Dammit,’ I growled. I took aim and fired just before the fae finished slithering inside its mortal skin. The woman’s body jerked once, twice, as the bullets found their mark.
‘You’re going to be in worlds of trouble,’ remarked Klaas as she slumped on the ground, the growling fae already dragging itself out of her flesh.
‘Just grab him, and let me worry about the Council,’ I said, sliding my gun back into its holster. The dead woman’s eyes regarded the sky as we stepped over her to bind the wounded fae hand and foot, ready to drag him back to where he belonged.
Like I said. Humans find it so easy to act like idiots. Something told me, though, that taking the Council’s punishment would be a little easier, this time.