Recently I’ve wandered into stranger-than-usual territory in three urban fantasy books.
Actually the third one may fall more into the speculative fiction category, but it mostly takes place in a city, and some elements come across to me much more as fantasy than as fiction that’s based in any science I’m aware of.
It’s been a while (June 2018) since I posted any book reviews on this blog, but today I’d like to share glimpses of the stranger-than-usual territory explored in Extreme Medical Services, The SparkleTits Chronicles, and Hollow Kingdom.
By Jamie Davis
A paramedic’s life is never dull, but that goes exponential for rookie paramedic Dean Flynn when he’s assigned to Elk City’s Station U. That place is definitely is located in stranger-than-usual territory.
Station U isn’t your standard paramedic station. And the population it serves doesn’t exactly fit into any standard class of human patients. That’s because Station U serves the “Unusuals” in town.
The local vampires, were-folk, sirens, faeries, dryads, and many other people who quietly (and carefully) live among the rest of the humans, but are medically “different.” As Brynne, Dean’s supervising partner, puts it, “They’re mostly humans, but not.”
Both together and individually, they create a challenging medical specialty. And they offer some moments of delightful humor.
This is a take on myths and legends unlike anything I’ve previously encountered. Davis poses a series of logical problems most of us have probably never imagined. What complications arise when the diabetic CPA also happens to be a werewolf? Or when a vampire has an allergic reaction? Or when a naiad (water sprite) gets severely dehydrated?
Notes on the Series
These problems and more confront Dean and his colleagues from Station U. Better yet, each patient also is a well-rounded character with a distinctive personality. Davis is a natural-born storyteller with a strong sense of the ironic.
Unfortunately, he’s not a trained storyteller. That means the dialogue is often clunky, the pace is ragged, and the plot is more instinctive than possessing a well-thought-out structure.
The frequent use of medical jargon may be off-putting to readers who were expecting more standard fantasy tropes, but the science fiction nerd in me got a kick out of the juxtaposition.
Extreme Medical Services is the first in an 8-book (if you count the prequel) series of short novels about Dean, his patients, colleagues, and others. Of course there’s trouble brewing in Elk City, and Dean is uniquely suited to help deal with it.
Whenever the series sticks close to its core identity it shines. Humorous and ironic medical-fantasy situations with a strong subtext of standing up for the rights of a misunderstood minority population provide some marvelous moments.
But the clunky writer-craft annoyed me throughout the series. And when the stories ventures too far into epic fantasy and cosmic cataclysm, they fall flat for me. In my opinion, the first 2-3 books were the most entertaining.
Yes, I know this is technically two books, but in a number of ways it’s not. I normally would never have seen or heard of these books if I hadn’t gone to Westercon 71, in July 2018 in Denver. That’s where I met Veronica and became intrigued with her unique personality and sense of humor.
That wry sense of humor and askance view of the world comes across forcefully in her writing, too. This woman has a voice and a style all her own, and it’s a pleasure to read her work.
When I want to give a full-throated endorsement, however, I’ve normally directed people to her Diary of a Mad Black Witch. That one’s a stand-alone novel that I could have sworn I’d already reviewed in this space–but I can’t find it, soI’ll have to remedy the oversight soon.
Meanwhile, what’s up with “SparkleTits”?
For a while the title itself held me back. I half-feared it would turn out to be some kind of exploitation ploy. But I couldn’t imagine that the author of Diary of a Mad Black Witch would really go there. So I gave them a try.
And I’ve got to tell you, they definitely take you into stranger-than-usual territory!
Greer Ianto is struggling to deal with the death of her beloved mentor Gabe when we meet her on what turns out to be the Nearly-Worst Possible Day Ever.
Then she gets semi-literally star struck (as in struck by something that looks to others like a star), and lives to ask what the heck just happened. At this point we have well and truly ventured into far-stranger-than-usual territory.
From there we plunge through nearly-nonstop (mis)adventures in a reality where superheroes are real (but, officially, they’re all men).
As a six-foot-tall black woman with an attitude, suddenly possessed of her own superpowers (that even work on the superhero men), Greer is guaranteed to rock their foundations. And I for one had a blast watching her do it.
Sins and Barbecue
Greer has a new and troublesome relationship going on in the second novel. She encounters a number of new bad guys. And she finds more clues about her mysterious origins and her late mentor Gabe, who wasn’t exactly what he seemed to be.
This particular cycle-within-a-larger-story finishes, but it’s clear the larger story continues. I very much doubt that the SparkleTits Chronicles are meant to end here.
You knew there’d be a “however”
These books are a lot of fun. Except for the moments when they fall apart.
Calisto’s writing is much better-crafted than Davis’s, but there still are places where she needed a line editor and/or a proofreader (different functions!). They could have saved her from confusing constructions, infelicitous turns of phrase, typos, editing artifacts, and more.
They also would probably have reminded her that not everyone who reads Book Two, Sins and Barbecue, will read it immediately after Starfish and Coffee, so the reader needs a reorientation about who everybody is and what happened in Book One.
The other big problem with these books is the interior artwork. The covers are workmanlike enough to convey the idea (no artist is credited for any of the artwork). But the interior artwork is just plain embarrassing. Incomprehensible and horrendously-timed, it appears that it’s supposed to convey some of the climactic action. It doesn’t. Instead it stops the story dead in its tracks at arguably the worst possible moment.
So, no. I can’t offer anything like a full-throated endorsement. But I can tell you it’s an interesting-enough experiment that I bought and read the second book. Make of that what you will.
If we suddenly had a Zombie Apocalypse, what would happen to all the companion animals? That’s the question underlying this much-talked-about top-seller.
Hollow Kingdom is the only traditionally-published entry in this blog post’s collection. The others are Indies that probably would not have received a good reception from the gatekeepers.
Is it a better book? Well, the craft is clearly better. Kira Jane Buxton writes well, and she’s been well-served by her editors at Grand Central Publishing. There are no amateurish issues to battle here. The publisher supported this book’s roll-out with strong advertising and review coverage.
You definitely should give it a look. The animal viewpoints deliver spot-on caricatures we all recognize. In addition to the protagonist, S.T. the genius-crow, we hear occasionally from other characters such as Genghis Cat and Winnie the Poodle. Their brief cameos illuminate and provide humor–even as they also are poignant.
The animal-welfare angle
Readers not used to reading speculative fiction or thinking in animal viewpoints may find it mind-expanding. And anytime we can get people to think more fully about animals and their welfare, that’s a good thing. But personally, I found it more depressing than many reviewers.
I’ve been associated with animal rescue organizations for long enough to cherish no illusions about what happens to domesticated animals when their caregivers cease to care for them.
Even cats, which many people think probably would thrive without people around, would inevitably suffer problems (note the dangerous lives of contemporary feral cats). Far more horrifying, animals trapped inside buildings, aquaria, zoo cages, barns and pastures without food and water would die agonized, lingering deaths.
Hollow Kingdom is a fantasy, firmly planted in stranger-than-usual territory. It provides poignant moments, funny moments, and a great many improbable situations. Maybe it’s better not to talk about the rest of the grimness, but I read this more as a slow-rolling horror story than as “hopeful.”
The photo of Veronica R. Calisto at Westercon 71 was taken with her knowledge and permission, and is © 2018 by Jan S. Gephardt, but you may re-post it or re-blog it with an attribution and a link back to this post. The photo of the two books in the SparkleTits Series is courtesy of Amazon. The photo of Denver, including the city park, part of the downtown skyline, and the Front Range with Mt. Evans, is By Hogs555 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikiepedia.