Monday, June 6, 2011

Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy

"Urban fantasy" is one of those subgenre labels that I've never been quite sure of the meaning of.  I associate it primarily with Charles de Lint, an obviously gifted writer whose work I've never yet been able to enjoy, and with a certain type of contemporary magical realism.  But in the case of Naked City, Ellen Datlow's new anthology, the meaning of urban fantasy is quite literal.  Each of those twenty tales takes place in a city.  The city might be a real one, or fictional; it might be within the United States (New York City features five times) or elsewhere in the world, or in another reality entirely; the setting might be past or present.  But always, there is the city, bewitching and terrifying, frustrating and wonderful.

For many readers, the major attraction of this anthology will be Jim Butcher's "Curses," a Dresden Files story set in that series' milieu, Chicago.  I'll confess that I've never read any of the series (supernatural detectives aren't my thing), and while "Curses" wasn't dazzling enough to change my mind on that, it's obvious that Butcher has mastered the wry private detective voice and done a credible job placing that voice in a world of fairies, demons, and yes, curses.  This particular story is about baseball, another pastime that has entirely passed me by, but I imagine fans of the sport will get a kick out of Harry Dresden's investigation into the true story behind the Cubs' bad luck, and even I enjoyed it.

Fans of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and other novels set in that fantasy world will certainly want to pick up the anthology for "The Duke of Riverside," a story set both before and after the events of that novel, and featuring St. Vier and Alec.  The same mixture of swordplay, sharp humor, and passion familiar from other Riverside fiction distinguishes this story, which also highlights the relationship between the aristocratic corner of the city and its less-wealthy regions.

Another star of contemporary fantasy, Peter S. Beagle, offers a grimly ironic story of the woes of academia in "Underbridge," where a visiting professor of children's literature finds himself drawn to Seattle's Fremont Troll statue... and imagines he sees it move.  His discovery of the troll's secret life and his precarious position at the university lead to a harrowing decline and a darkly satisfying climax.

In "The Projected Girl," Lavie Tidhar offers an eerie mystery from a magician's scrapbook, but the real joy of the story is the evocation of a young boy's experience of growing up in Haifa, from bookshop visits to encounters with fascinating or disturbing relatives to the sheer pleasure of exploring the city itself.  Multi-faceted yet elusive, exotic yet radiantly human, this is a story not to be missed.

Born out of one of those bizarre comparisons people dream up when trying to communicate the size of something, John Crowley's "And Go Like This" at first seems like it will beat a metaphor to death, but Crowley weaves words so well that what might have been a ridiculous premise becomes a powerful dream of community and the recognition of common humanity.  If only it could be true.

For sheer creepiness, nothing in the anthology can match Jeffrey Ford's "Daddy Longlegs of the Evening."  Its opening sentence is "It was said that when he was a small child, asleep in his bed one end-of-summer night, a spider crawled into his ear, traversed a maze of canals, eating slowly through membrane and organ, to discover the cavern of the skull."  The imagery remains that disturbing, but its scope expands, ending with a vision of widening horror reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti.

And in "The Colliers' Venus (1893)," Caitlin R. Kiernan brings the reader to Cherry Creek, an alternate version of Denver, Colorado in a steampunk-influenced world.  Like much of Kiernan's fiction, this stories draws on the author's knowledge of paleontology and the long history of inexplicable Fortean events, as Professor Jeremiah Ogilvy investigates a strange discovery made in the mine tunnels beneath the city.  Kiernan's gift for describing weird vistas of cosmic terror in poetic language results in a fine tale redolent of humanity's ignorance and impermanence.

These were my own favorite stories from the anthology, but there are others every bit as striking, from "Oblivion by Calvin Klein," a sharp-edged absurdist satire on conspicuous consumption, to "Picking Up the Pieces," about an unusual encounter during the fall of the Berlin Wall, to "Priced to Sell," an inventive comic fantasy about the New York real estate scene.  I hope it's obvious from these bare descriptions that readers should check any preconceptions about "urban fantasy" at the door.  This is an anthology that captures the full scope of the genre, from humorous to dark, from epic to magical realism.  With a contributor list full of best sellers, award winners, and legends of the genre, Naked City is a thick, rich anthology, not to be missed.

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