Urban Fantasy Detective Romance

Urban Fantasy was coined to cover the broad range of books where there’s a secret world behind the real one. It’s broad and fuzzy. You’re got China Mieville’s Kraken, as a horror/detective. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as whimsy/self-discovery, De Lint as pure whimsy, Treadwell’s Advent series as horror/suspense.

But there’s a tight sub-genre, where you’re obviously in it or you’re not: the Urban Fantasy Detective Romance. Here are the rules they follow:

o Start with a secret world type book, Harry Potter or UnderWorld. Steal a chunk of folklore, a mash-up if you can, and change some of the rules. This is important – people are partly reading it for your unique take on how the secret world works. As the series progresses, you have to add and explain more of the rules.

o The heroine is either a non-human species that can pass as human, or a 1/2-human of some sort (if you have nothing else, a 1/2-vampire will do, but you can be much more creative than that.)

o Be some sort of detective or policewoman or guardian involved with the supernatural. But she’s inexperienced. We’re learning about things along with her.

o Be recklessly impulsive. Charge into the master vampires lair screaming that he killed your sister, but he admires your pluck and gives a hint who really did it. Go clothes shopping while the demon is trying to kill you, since you can’t stand being cooped-up. Sometimes she does stuff just because some jerk man told her not to.

o Terrible taste in men and/or just bad luck. Fated to have decent guys scared off. Her complicated romantic life should take up at least half of the story, including important plot points. Somewhat like the TV show “Charmed.”

o She should feel old, or unattractive and generally insecure. The one dress that makes her look half-decent gets troll blood all over it. This is partly from the Romance novel roots. She’s identifiable.

o Her female friends and relationships are important to her (and the story) possibly also her mother. Consoling a friend about a break-up is equally important as finding the killer.

o Many of the problems are best solved with empathy. If you get to know all the monsters and really listen to them, rather than listening with your fists, you get the satisfaction of making everyone happy. It’s about solving the problem, not killing the problem. But it’s not a Romance novel. In those your man must solve the problem with your loving support. In an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance, the heroine solves her own problems.

 

That sounds made-up and extremely specific, but it’s a thing.

Someone once explained to me that a definition of Emo music was anything inspired by The Cure, which meant The Cure was not Emo. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter is somewhat similar. That world is off-the-shelf Master Vampires and Werewolf packs – from Anne Rice and roleplaying games. And the main character is a human with no special powers (except a License to Kill, the undead.) It’s not an UFDR, partly since it inspired them. What that series did was show you could sell a somewhat cheesy secret world book by adding strong Romance elements.

Seanan McGuire, Cryptid series

I saw Seanan McGuire at a convention. She was in full “act like a fabulous author GoH” mode, and could not stop giggling about exploding hawiian rats and the tapeworm she ate on purpose. So, she doesn’t take herself all that seriously, which is the right attitude for these books.

The world starts as the standard “every mythical creature you’ve even heard of is real.” A secret society is battling them to keep humans safe. Her twist is that was hundreds of years ago. Humans have long been safe, but the society is hell-bent on exterminating every “cryptid,” including the ones vital for the natural ecology. The main characters are a break-away family, ruthlessly hunted as traitors, devoted to the study and preservation of supernatural ecology.

The rest of the twist is adding insane creatures – talking mice (that’s all they do) and dragon princesses which look human, breed asexually, live in groups and single-mindedly collect gold by working regular jobs, then buying the gold.

The heroine is a self-confident babe, but at least has money problems and trouble meeting guys in her line of work (which is protecting the harmless monsters of New York.) She’s 100% human, but has plenty of non-human relatives and her renegade family name is famous among monsters, which is like a superpower. Plus she’s trained in ninja skills since birth. To make up for her being so normal, she spider-mans (parkour) everywhere, works in a non-human topless club, and is a contestant on “So you think you can dance.”

The plot is the usual sprawl of personal problems, attempts to help her non-human sister, a hot guy from the family that’s hunting her’s, and a world-changing magic spell powered by monster blood and humans mutated into lizardmen. What we thought was the big monster turns out to be a good guy.

 

A funny thing is, later books in the series have a male protagonist, her brother. He’s a non-violent researcher, clumsy around women, with strong female role models — but he’s still a guy. So the stereotypical woman stuff goes away, and we get to watch a cartoon man — a big, dumb ape blundering his way through. It’s fine, but you can tell it’s no longer a real urban fantasy detective romance.

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Clockwork Wolf, Lynn Viehl

This one is a little too Romancy – two men are fighting over her the entire book – but otherwise it’s such a bizzarre mash-up, hitting all the elements extra hard.

The heroine is a impulsive female detective. She’s insecure about being a commoner (in a faux-Victorian society.) Her powers are immunity to magic, fast healing and she’s probably really a human off-shoot fairy creature. She’s also friends with an all-powerful ghost wizard and another all-powerful SteamPunk engineer.

Romance-wise, a powerful wizard is in love with her, along with her childhood friend, now a police chief (i.e.: a rich noble and a brawny working man.) She sleeps with the policeman to try to cure him of robotic werewolfism.

The bad guy is (I’m going to list the mash-up parts) an (1)Ancient Evil banished by (2)Celtic shamen, who is trying to (3)impregnate women with demon babies using (4)robot (5)werewolfs recruited from a (6)secret nobility sex club.

It borrows a lot from the SteamPunk-before-women-had-rights genre. Those go two ways – a heroine better than any man; or a woman testing and chafing against the small amount of freedom she’s allowed. This takes the latter approach (of course, or it wouldn’t be here.)

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Devious Dr. Jekyll, Viola Carr

This is another steampunk mashup, sort of League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

The heroine is a free-lance police investigator. Her powers are expert forensic alchemy and instant healing when she changes into her alternate shape. Her Jekyl and Hyde alternate self is extremely impulsive, constantly second-guessing her.

Mash-up-wise, her father is the real Jekyl and Hyde, Jack the Ripper is in love with her, Ada Lovelace is a robot running the secrete police with an immortal Sir Isaac Newton. Her boyfriend is a werewolf secret policeman. Two bad guys are a Picture of Dorian Grey, and the other is (essentially) Mycroft Holmes.

The plot follows the rules pretty well: dealing with personal problems, which may also be clues; stupidly impulsive behavior which sometimes advances the plot; romance which also advances the plot; worries about money.

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Agent of Hel series, Jacqueline Carey

The secrete world of the Agent of Hel series is that Nifthel is now in Wisconsin and goddess Hel has picked a sweet 20-something not-quite human girl as her personal representative. Oh, and all the usual non-Norse mythological creatures are around.

She’s just out of college and sweetly pretty, which breaks a rule, which is fine. She’s bad with boyfriends and extremely insecure that she’s just faking her new adulthood, and is secretly a half-demon (Norse mythology doesn’t have demons, but also fine.) The town is pretty much Stars Hollow and many of the locals know more magic than her (and also how to brew tea and just gab with the girls.)

One plot involves a misunderstood “Monsters Inc” type creature. Another a lot of careful listening to witnesses and help from her friends (and trusting this guy with whom she’s worried the relationship may be going too fast!) The main plot has exploding rockets and mercenaries, but it’s really the result of an argument between the bad guy and her husband, which our heroine helps smooth out (yes, yes, after sneaking into the camp with all sorts of clever magic. It’s a perfectly good ending, and at least one giant monster gets blown up.)

Something that snuck up on me: Hel has given her a unique magical relic dagger. In other words, a magic sword. She just tucks it away. Much later, she realizes it’s meant to be flashed like a badge. Now, if you gave some man a magical sword … but these books aren’t about what men would do, which is probably start wars while drunk.

 

Hel isn’t quite original, but it’s a great idea for an offbeat secret world. The real Norse Helheim is a frozen realm — the original Elemental Plane of Ice — and Helas is just this hermit 1/2-goddess living there. But it’s somehow the inspiration for hot Hell with an ex-angel in charge. In theory it’s a magical place of power — Thor comics says it is — so sure, it’s a great way to have a Wisconsin vortex of power who’s owner is happy to delegate.

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Dresden series, Jim Butcher

If you like Urban Fantasy Detective Romances, you’ll hate the Harry Dresden series, and vice-versa, and that’s so cool.

The Dresden backstory is nearly identical. He’s a broke detective who protects humans from the usual secrete world: three crazed sub-types of vampires, werewolves, wizards and necromancers, the usual shakespearian malicious fairies, demons and so on. He’s a wizard. I think wizards are just humans, so he’s not half-anything, but close enough. One odd thing, he’s a junior member of the Wizards’ Council. Not many female monster hunters are able to break that glass ceiling, but for a guy that’s a lowly position.

The stories seem about the same, but then you notice things. They’re more focused on the main baddie: Harry doesn’t visit his mom, check out his sister’s possibly seedy new boyfriend, or find a clue while searching for a spaghetti recipe in an ill-fated attempt to cook for a new love interest. In fact, he doesn’t worry about maintaining his friendships and normal life since he has neither. He’s more of a traditional burnt-out gumshoe. Back to the friends, he doesn’t even get out much to talk to contacts for info. There’s a magic skull in his basement for that.

And his main problem solving skill is pretty direct. He blasts things with magic; both kinds – fire and force. That’s his defining character trait. He’s a caveman, rushes in without thinking, is easily distracted by anything shape-changed into a curvy body. Like all true men, his magic is powered by rage. To be sure, female detectives tap into their inner range all the time, usually because they’re sick of being treated like a girl. They usually do something unlady-like. This dude just does the same thing he always does, only angrier.

All-in-all it’s a huge difference. The Dresden series is about a stereotypical schluby male. It’s mostly an action series. Nothing wrong with that. But it makes you realize how much of an Unban Fantasy Detective Romance book is specifically about feminism. Cartoony 3rd-wave feminism, but it’s a story and a reminder that women can fight monsters as well as men without having to act like men.

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Fixed series, Linda Grimes

So here’s the plot of the one book in this series I read: the main character has a pregnancy scare, but it could be due to her magical powers, so she puts off taking a test. Afer the funeral of a murdered relative, she has to make all these excuses for why she can’t drink anymore, then more to her mom at home for why she isn’t guzzling coffee.

After beating up a guy trying to kidnap her, her boyfriend finally helps her take a test. It’s positive and he freaks out and runs. Then she stays with her mom after bad guys kill another relative and burn down her apartment, and there are all these cats from a third murdered relative.

Later she gets blood all over herself from killing a bad-guy, so the other man who might be the father of her baby takes her home and lets her wear his clothes. She tells him about the baby, and he’s excited about being a dad, and they bang.

But then she finds out her boyfriend only freaked because of a dark secret about his own mom. He asks to marry her, even after they find out she’s not really pregnant, and they almost have a courtroom marriage with their new bodyguards as witnesses (the first bodyguard was lost in another bad guy attack.)

Then they both get kidnapped by a different guy who’s kids are being held by the Mob, so they use their magical powers to rescue the kids and catch those badguys. Back at home, Mom has even more cats from murdered aunts. Then her boyfriend proves she can count on him, by helping capture the main bad guy. Finally, she and the other guy who wanted to marry her agree to stay friends. The End.

As you may have figured out, this is just a straight Romance novel. What should have given it away for me was the traditional romance cover: woman in front, two male models flanking, both a little too close to her. The publisher is TOR, which doesn’t have a specific romance division.

What’s interesting is how a Romance author decided to borrow from Urban Fantasy Detective. The secret world part is that some people can shape change, but only into people they’ve met. But, the ability to copy a particular person is an Aura, and you can show an Aura you know to another shape-changer. Even that tiny amount of detail is still more than Romances need. I think it’s touching.

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Blood Singer series (Cat Adams)

I read book 7, “All Your Wishes” in a series billed as “paranormal romance.” That’s usually code for “straight-up romance with a werewolf instead of a pirate.” This one is short on romance – some cute guys, but she’s much too focued on the mission. But as with many 7th books, it’s bloated with a Disneyland of the supernatural. Along with the missing romance, a lot of the interpersonal stuff is missing. The main character could just as well have been a man. It looks like this book is just one of the original two authors. I suppose the other one handled the romance.

The overall backstory is that magic and myth and civilization has coexisted for a long time. Stores sell charms, we have magi-tech items, police forces employ mages, anti-vampire fences are common, magic is taught at college.

The main character is a 1/2-vampire, 1/2-siren (and 1/2-human?) detective, running her agency out of a former church. Her best friends and emplyees are a werewolf, a wizard and a ghost. Her Mom(?) is a siren queen, making her also a princess. Going against tradition, she’s generally happy with her appearance – vampires are a sexy pale and siren’s are naturally beautiful. But at least she has personal problems: sirens magically bring out the catiness in other women. 1/2-vampires need to frequently eat baby food and smoothies, use lots of sunscreen, and they lisp horribly when their fangs pop out. And she’s also cursed.

Her boyfriend is a sexy mage with strong hands from a family of powerful mages, and also mobsters. They start off with a big unspecified argument that sounds like it could be trouble – maybe about children. But he’s gone the entire book visiting his dying mother, then is out of the picture. We never find out what the argument was about. The extent of their romance is her calling him to ask if his mom is dead yet. In the 1-year-later epilogue she gets together with a cute, minor character with whom she previously had no sparks.

The plot starts with a client being told to contact her by his oracle, and her being told to take the case by her oracle. As everyone knows, you can’t ask oracles too many questions. That goes for readers, too – she just has to help the guy, OK? In case you’re wondering, she solves the case by doing something else her oracle told her to do.

The plot involves some super-evil wizards from a previous book, including an evil wizard ghost sworn to kill her (also from a previous book) led by a super-powerful demon. We never find out their plot, but they free a super-powerful genie for it, who, shocker, gets out of hand and possesses the main character’s body. It either wants to go home, or to free a bunch of other evil genies (in the book, it’s the first – it’s a genie serial-killer of other genies and wants to kill the judge who sentenced it; but the book jacket says the latter.)

At the very end, she wins by realizing she has friends. Literally just realizing. She suddenly remembers she has siren telepathy, which she has been using through-out the book, and reaches out to all of her friends at once. That gives her the strength to shake off the genie control. Then she executes the plan she made with the only female genie-keeper and her young son (who hasn’t yet grown into swaggering jerk of a man). The had a proper discussion as only women-folk can.

Various secondary events are crammed in:

  • Her main evil ghost enemy dies after her heart stops in an unrelated matter (her death was it’s Unfinished Business.) After being reminded of how lethal wizard ghosts are, this is the first time we see him in the book. He just shows up, says “I was actually just hanging around waiting for someone else to kill you, and they did,” and poofs away. Just in case readers notice that she’s had her heart stopped several times before, her friends ask her “haven’t you had your heart stopped several times before?” and she explains this was extra-stoppy, so fooled the ghost in a way the previous heart-stops couldn’t.
  • We very briefly meet a guy from a previous book, just so we can see him dead later.
  • After she wins, it’s mentioned in passing that the main group of genie-keepers were all murdered elsewhere. They weren’t her enemies, and didn’t have any unfinished business. Maybe it’s to avoid fan fiction using them?
  • Also after winning, we go back in time (she’s literally taken back in time) to see her boyfriend get killed by the mob (remember the one she briefly talked in in chapter 1? That guy). I feel like she could have watched a video, or maybe since the story was over, done that at the start of the next book?
  • Immediately after winning, a good genie, who had been calmly watching them fight the evil one, pops up and brings her werewolf friend back to life (he died one page ago, which inspired her to fight harder.) Those wacky genies and their rules.

But the book respects the rule where we have to learn more about the world. There are professional magic-using hitmen. Demons can appear without being summoned if they time it exactly when a ghost dies, since that makes a tunnel from here to the otherworld? Genies are new to the series, and we learn genie-keeper powers come from being part genie. If you use mental telepathy in an airports, the TSA has magic to spy on it. Does that make up for not really caring about the main character?

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Deadworld

Deadworld is another one that looks like an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance, but is clearly just a Romance, borrowing from the UFDR genre. I like it since it so clearly shows that however much you borrow, you have to decide whether you’re a Romance or not, and there’s a big difference.

The cover is a woman with leather pants and a halter top posing with a gun in an alley. No men, but I’m sure the next printing will add one. So that wasn’t a clue, but maybe the acknowledgement to the local RWA (Romance Writers of America) should have clued me in.

The borrowed elements are checked off pretty quickly: the main character works for the FBI with a semi-psychic partner on X-Files type cases. She has serious personal problems making her incapable of having a stable relationship wih a man. The secret supernatural stuff is, well:

The villian is a vampire, sort of. These vampires don’t have fangs – they get the blood out with mundane means. But they can teleport at will, and the mind-control is jacked-up to be instant and irresistable (but don’t worry – they forget to use it during the big fight scene.) They also have no weakness to sunlight, holy ground, stakes to the heart and so on. And they actually get more energy feeding on ghosts. But sure, they’re vampires and not the necromancers which they clearly are.

The male lead is a good vampire who only drinks artificial blood. Real blood is pretty easy to get, but whatever. He was also a sheriff in the old West. And a quirky private investigator with a sexy psychic assistant and bombshell vampire best friend. He’s also rich, owning the company that makes the fake blood. You’d think he sells it to all the other good vampires, but that would be overthinking things.

He also owns a 5-star Italian restaurant, and is an execellent cook himself. In case you were wondering, the book explicitly describes how hot this makes her. I just want to see him on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Chef Ramsay can ask him “do you feel employees are afraid to come to you with problems, you being a vampire?” and “answer honestly, how many customers have you mind-controlled into not bothering you about undercooked linguine?”

In case you haven’t put it together, the book does it for you. He’s referred to only as one of: cowboy vampire, sheriff, vampire PI or vampire cowboy sheriff. I was going to be impressed, except a quick search on “Vampire Cowboy” shows a book written a month later, May 2011, named “The Zillionare vampire cowboy’s secret werewolf babies.”

 

One way you can tell its a Romance is the sheer amount of pointless small talk. When she questions the leading man as her murder suspect, we learn what kind of coffee they all drink, who brings it, how good they thought it was and what types of pastry they all like. The millionare cowboy vampire likes “very strong” coffee. That sounds cooler than saying he likes French Press, which is how you’d actually order it. The FBI women like their coffee the same way they did in the previous two scenes. Later on, she accepts tea (from the FBI psychologist who warns she can’t outrun her personal demons, but allows her to stay on the case.)

After the questioning, we get more small talk with her partner about how hot the guy was, how hot his assistant was (the main character’s now lesbian assistant psychic partner gets to have sex once before being killed. No! You murdered my partner, just when she came out to me!!) But it’s fine, since dead psychics always come back as helpful ghosts. This sounds like the origin story of “FBI agent with ghost partner,” but I assume the author’s dog ate those pages.

It’s a pretty typical romance: lonely, incomplete heroine meets mysterious man; is suspicious at first, but slowly sees how studly he is and comes to rely on him. She’s tricked into spilling her deepest secrets (as he shows her how powerful vampire hynotism is,) but he accepts and appreciates her flaws. He has to put her to bed and fantasizes about taking advantage, but doesn’t. Then her love helps him overcome his greatest weakness (he doesn’t think he can beat the bad guy. Yes, her role in killing the bad guy is only to inspire her man. Evil vampire even dies off-camera, his purpose accomplished.)

My favorite part is when they meet the ghost of his dead wife. She gives him permission to move on to a new woman, and adds that she and the other ghosts approve of his new girlfriend, then disolves into spirit power.

Ah, let me explain. The final showdown is where the bad guy has trapped the ghosts of his victims, drinking them as needed for power (but he’s a vampire, not a necromancer, dammit.) I guess they could break a window to let the ghosts out, but whatever. The bad guy very, very slowly calls one ghost at a time to suck from (I guess mind-control works on dead people.) The good guys watch, since it’s just rude to attack people before they’re fully powered-up. Then the ghost best friend and the cowboy PI’s ghost best friend (who isn’t dead, but we’re long past asking questions like that) help him to accept the help of all the ghosts who believe in him, saving the day.

 

As far as an UFDR, this fails in a lot of ways. No one cares about the secret history of these vampires (in fact, the teaser for the next book involves an opiate-addicted cop possessed by some new type of vengeful ghost.) The book teases at “how would an ancient vampire survive in a modern world,” but then just drops it – evil vampire is apparently also rich, and has an evil chauffer, but that’s all we get. Ghosts can’t affect the physical world unless the plot requires it.

The heroine doesn’t drive the plot, doesn’t grow except to realize she can love the leading man, and there are no subplots involving consoling her best friend who got dumped that also affect the main plot. There’s no approaching problems the way a woman would, with empathy and sudden rage at being treated like a helpless chikita.

The plot just moves ahead, having them react to evil guy. Vampire PI has been locked in a recurring struggle with him for 100+ years, but just dribbles out things during a chase which he happened to remember. This is all fine for a Romance – the plot is supposed to be bland and generic enough so you can focus on their burgeoning desire. But it’s the opposite of a world-building, character-driven “finding her way” woman-led story.

The spine says “Kensington Urban Fantasy.” Wikipedia says Kensington also has a Romance line, but doesn’t mention the Urban Fantasy one, and Kensington’s web site doesn’t mention lines at all. Even so, someone is probably getting fired over this mix-up. I feel bad, but if an editor couldn’t tell this was a Romance, maybe they should change jobs.

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Black Wings series

The oddest thing about the Black Wing series is the main character has no one. By the end of the first book she’s moving to the intrigue-filled royal court, all alone in the world, a misstep away from tragedy. That feels like a traditional womens’ genre – innocent country girl comes to the palace or something. Besides having no friends, everything else is right on track.

Secret world premise #1 is from “Dead Like Me”. She gets when-and-where notes from a big bureaucracy about people dying who need to be ushered to the afterlife (quick check: Dead Like Me: 2003; Black Wings series: 2010.) The TV show had fun deaths with life-lessons from the departed. This has 2 boring deaths, but as a soul collector she gets free wings which also make her invisible. Premise #2 is standard feuding angels – some stayed on earth, had demon children and created complicated cut-throat court structures. This will be the main plot.

Her gay best friend, also a fellow soul-collector, gets slaughtered early to show how evil Crude Demon Bad Guy is. Sample dialogue: “his soul didn’t taste as good as your mother’s, when I killed her 15 years ago, but better than the other souls of people I routinely kill.” So I guess her mom is dead. We meet her sometimes-friendly witch contact. That one gets murdered by her long-lost father to show how bass-ass he is, or how much he loves his daughter, or both. Just in case, she’s a virgin – no ex-boyfriends. Her only friend is a talking ca-, errr, mini-gargoyle that stays home and shares junk food with her.

One named character from her past life gets to live: her super-hot boss who she can’t help but scream at for being so mean to her. He’s alive since he also has magical powers through a mysterious non-human parent, and on the last page is also in love with her.

We start her new life with a mysterious super-sexy stranger renting the downstairs unit. She’s mad he enspelled her gargoyle, but that’s just so she gets to forgive him. He’s a half-angel/half-demon sent to protect her, but so low-status that their love is forbidden. Luckily she gets assigned a future husband by father #1. Clever thinking on her part puts the marraige off for a year. So, to sum up, she has 3 beaus. She also has 2 possibly evil fathers who each rule a demon court.

No one cares about the plot. Crude evil demon attacks her a bunch. Her secret evil half-brother, as well. They kill scores of people – way too many for this genre. A vision of her first demon ancestor comes to her (that part was sort of cute – the sort of dream-sequence Neil Gaiman would write.) The evil angel who killed that ancestor is now the lover of Crude Demon Bad Guy (this is the only sex scene in the book.) For no reason our herione gets a blue flame blast, then a white sunforce blast and finally another blast ray with an unknown color. She can also regenerate from death. Except she can’t regenerate her heart if a demon eats it. For example, suppose you use a type-3 blast on a demon you know can come back from anything, check and see it’s not dead, then turn your back on it to gloat for a few minutes.

So she’s alive without a heart. But on to more important things: the 5 men all walk in! Low-status but sweet and sexy, loser bethrothed, her demon father, and she’s revealed as the only living great-great-great offspring of the demon king, who loves her but is very scary. And that plotting 1/2-brother of hers, too! She’s sure got her hands full with all those men!

The lesson here is to always read a book by the Author Guest of Honor at a convention. “Tina” Henry seems very nice (I distinctly heard she prefers Tina during the GoH panel.) She seemed to have recovered from the series being dropped before the last two were written, with the Alice books. If I’d read this book earlier I could have asked her if this was basically a period piece about a woman from the countryside whisked to the French court. Maybe not that, maybe why the main character breaks the genre by having no female friends. It couldn’t be any worse than explaining to Glen Cook why Furious Light is a bad girlfriend for Garrett.

Update: Buying Black Wings came with a free copy of her new book, “The Mermaid”. I was a little worried to read it, but it’s terrific. More than that, it’s a completely different style. These books are all just clever adaptation of a formula, but hardly literature. It’s a shock – like dot paintings in a museum next to a realistic still life by the same artist – to find a romance author who can also write an actual novel.

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War for the Oaks

As we all know, movies follow this sequence: excellent foreign film, not-as-good american remake, completely unwatchable franchise that rakes in the cash. Books aren’t so linear – I still think Interview with the Vampire contributed “supernatural erotica can sell again”. But 1987’s “War for the Oaks” is the excellent foreign film of urban detective fantasy romance.

One of the first things you notice is gradually, through actions, finding out who’s who. It takes a few chapters to figure out which bandmate is her best friend. In fact, it takes those chapters for them to realize it themselves. We’re not quite sure about her loser boyfriend, then he becomes a bad-guy, then we realize we had the clues all along to know why, and that he wasn’t really the bad guy. That’s 1000% the character development you get in the dumbed-down successors.

The secret world is the Fairie court – good elves vs. evil ones for the fate of Minneapolis. Short scenes where the 2 queens size her up – this is what later authors realized they could stretch into long, predictable hissing contests. But most of the book deals with forming a new band, writing songs, getting naked with the new cute lead guitarist, and practicing. It so happens I have heard the author, Emma Bull, play. “Girl needs a knife” is quite good. She’s writing what she knows.

It turns out her leading a band is the actual point. A faction of fairies is ready for a new way – they picked a human who might help with that. We know one fairy is involved with the band, and suspect more. They’re curious, willing to see a different style of leader.

Her eventual love interest is the cruel fairy who scouted her. We eventually find that he merely wanted to use her; but in the sense she could be “the one”. He trusts her with secrets, but only as part of his plan. He comes to admire her more and more, while she begins to understand the personal risks he’s taken for idealism. The other cuter, but less complicated fairy knight is also coming around, before he bravely dies. Several extended sex scenes ensue.

It ends in a set-piece – a battle of the bands between good and evil. But it’s because she’s proved her resolve to the Queen, who approves it, because she gained the trust of the good elves in her band, figured out it could be done at all, and gained the courage to actually do it.

All of the parts to exploit are there: romance and courtship with two guys, being thrust into the secret world, solving things by making friends. Anyone who reads it would think two perfect halves of a thought: I can’t write that well; but people probably want more action, more critters, and more flirty banter. Cut the first and add the second, and you’re got a formulaic series.

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Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn, is about an Asian female superhero team. That seems pretty far from simple Urban Fantasy, much less UFDR, but it pretty quickly checks most of the boxes.

The backstory is that way back in Book One (this is Book Three) a demon army invaded earth but was killed in a portal accident. They’re like Charmed demons – the important ones have unique powers. You know, the ones they look up in the Book of Shadows). On portal collapse their powers were flung into nearby humans. Namely, three Asian young women. Currently, the portal(s) are now being watched and rogue minor demons hunted down. That didn’t really grab me, but it’s certainly different, and we learn a little more about it in this book, and our villain is an interesting invasion-related loose-end. So I suppose the secret world invention part is fine.

The main character is a human 20-something. One hundred percent human, not 1/2 werewolf or elf, so that’s a let down. She caught telepathy and mind-control from a dying demon, but eh. Personality-wise is where she fits the mold: the self-control and attention span of a 6-year-old, driven by the insecurity of being the baby of the group. She’s a description of Mania – every faint idea of hers spirals out into poster-boards, vague plans and finally her basking in universal acclaim until she has another idea an hour later.

Also in UFDR spirit, she’s devoted to her many friends. She has a meaningful conversation/cry with her older sister, makes up with an old frenemy, comes to respect a formerly aloof female friend, and, after many, many attempts, finds out why she can’t set up her boss with anyone. Her boss has a small, ugly dog. The only name I remember from the entire book is that dog’s – Pancake. Will taking care of it be an important plot point? You betcha! Modern romances have lengthy sex scenes detailing exact tongue and hand placement to bring her to ecstasy, and this is no exception. The full page where she fantasizes about him in the shower? That’s just a warm up for the next two scenes. I miss the old days where a vampire’s teeth merely sent waves of full-body tingling and we could move on.

The atmosphere is explicitly 3rd-generation. The super-hero team has a fan-site, the biggest demon portal is in a couples-friendly sex shop. The demon traps are explicitly based on GhostBusters. The fights have time-outs for the heroes to argue about fashion – the bad guys will wait. The main character works in an independent bookstore specializing in paranormal romance series. Fun fact: Robert E. Howard (Conan), H.P. Lovecraft and several others all knew each other, and had a game where their books had to invent a Cthulu-like being and a banned book written by an insane warlock. This author sort of does that: the main character’s favorite book is an out-of-print dragon romance series, and the store has a 9-book filthy series about slutty were-porcupines. So that’s fun.

Plot-wise it seemed weak. The primary stuff is all typical: investigating too many leads without enough people, landing in fights, going back over old evidence that you forgot about while having shower sex, and being hit with bad-guy stuff faster than you can react. But it felt like there was nothing for us to go on. You know – that little satisfaction when we realize she wasn’t the target of the hit before she does, or when we suddenly realize the werewolf pack WAS framed and we had the clues all along. This felt like a parody of a Scooby-Doo episode – 15 seconds where the villain who we’re never met says the ghosts were mirrors and his plan somehow involved real estate. Riiight.

But enough clever-ish magical stuff happens, and hopefully you’re distracted enough by everyone’s personal growth. The book ends with the main character satisfyingly realizing she’s been working too hard to impress other people. Then making a big change taking more responsibility, and doing what we’ve known all along was her true passion. And, seriously, that’s what these books are about.

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Mercy Blade, Faith Hunter

Mercy Blade, by Faith Hunter, is the 3rd book in her longest “Jane YelllowRock” series. Her other is “Rogue Mage”. The book is a mess, like it was written by a hastily trained AI. Before making fun of it, the interesting parts:

The heroine, Jane, is a were-cat, but only sort of. She’s possessed by the spirit of a were-puma(*), which allows her to change into a puma(*) plus any animal she’s collected bones for, and may eventually turn her evil. Potentially more fun, the cat-spirit talks to her, in pidgin english. I say potentially since all it says in this book are things like “wolves bad”. But it does move the plot along, once, by yelling “mine” at the sight of her possibly ex-boyfriend with another woman.

In this world, vampires go insane for a decade after first being created, and frequently there-after. To make up for that, since ancient Babylon vampires have existed in symbioses with a rare shape-changing reptile who can cure their madness. And, for no good reason, these creatures also mercy-kill kill young vampires who never regain their wits. This is the “Mercy Blade” from the title.

In the series, vampires have been known to exist. In this book, to the general public’s great shock, were-cats reveal themselves. We find out that most were-creatures breed true, but not werewolves. They’re the lowest of the low, and can only grow the pack by biting humans. Other were-creatures ban this. To enforce it, they keep trained Scottish swampmen with super-speed and razor claws, whose only job is to instantly murder werecats biting humans for fun.

(*)The book calls her “skin walker” spirit a mountain lion. But it’s set in New Orleans (which we learn from the book is 90% bars and brothels, and no longer serves cajun food). Mountain Lion is more of a western term. She should be called a were-panther. Or a were-cougar. Puma, cougar, panther, mountain lion – all the same animal. But I digress.

The book has romance elements, but odd ones. We start with her and her boyfriend naked in bed, waking up. She drools over his abs and worries that she hasn’t told him her dark cat secret. In the last book, she rescued him in were-cougar form, but he got partial amnesia. But it’s only a matter of time since he figures it out, since he’s a human elite cop. We don’t see him for the rest of the book.

Next she meets a slim, sexy swordsman who saves her after he tricked her vampire boss into sending her to meet him at a werewolf bar (did I mention the plot makes no sense)? All of the werewolf clawing requires them to partly undress each other, tending to wounds. Sexy swordsman has powerful love magic, which she resists, but he’s still very mysterious and cute. But in later chapters he’s dropped as a love interest. I think the author forgot about it. He’s just a good guy who we think is a bad guy until the last minute, since he acts suspicious for no reason.

We next turn to her boss’s bodyguard, who Jane had a fling with before dating the cop. He begs her to let him hide out at her place, then makes sex jokes until she agrees to slow-dance with him, which gets her all hot. Then in a later chapter he sneaks into the shower with her, and she likes it. In the book it’s even more gross and rapey than I make it sound.

All through the book, she worries about her missing man. He’s been seen with a hot redhead, and isn’t returning calls, but he’s probably on an undercover seduction mission with the sexy werecat lady, or the werewolf lady, or both (it’s both). Jane can’t decide whether to wait, or to cheat on him (this is where her puma-spirit yells “mine”, letting us know she still wants him).

There’s a disturbing amount of, well, you decide: after most fights she’s described as bloody, dirty and stinky. She has to strip down and hose-off the gross sweat and dried blood, new blood; some hers, some not; out of all the crevices of her body. The shower scene actually happened when they both needed to clean off lots of blood at the same time. Later, her boyfriend was being turned into a werewolf. It involves biting, frequent sweaty sex with the she-wolf, and being kept covered in her sweat and saliva in-between. So, all of that is part of some sort of sex fetish, right?

Unlike a real UFDR, she doesn’t have female friends, or any friends, and very little inner life. Her best friend is her female roommate, but she’s out-of-town for the entire book. We get one brief phone call with her near the end. Sub-letting is a friend of her friend, a visiting witch, who Jane YellowRock dislikes and hasn’t talked to. The only two other women are the werecat and “werebitch”, who both rape her boyfriend, are otherwise huge sluts, and die horribly (by the Scottish lizard, and by Jane). Jane’s closest relationship is with her on-call all-male ultra-competent merc squad. Altogether, the book feels like more of a male sex-fantasy of the “she could beat me up anytime” type.

The writing is a awkward. My favorite passage, paraphrased, is “I loaded the Benelli M4 shotgun with seven 2.5 inch standard rounds”. This is part of the long description of weaponing up, including the many stabby hairpins she wears in her waist-length hair. She’s endlessly taking them out and putting them back in as she’s searched, or goes out dancing. She never even uses them. Back to the gun, as with every gun, we assume it has the normal amount of bullets of the correct size. In the movie version they can turn “I spent 15 minutes dressing myself in knives, leather, and guns” into a whole scene, which may require changing the type of shotgun for legal reasons.

Later on she’s chatting with her former lover about security (she works for the vampire who runs the city. Yawn). A page of techo-babble about cameras. In a book you can write “I told him about how security cameras have changed in the last 10 years, and he was so impressed he kept looking up to my eyes before going back down to my breasts again”. See how that tells us what we need to know? And now you have room for “I felt his hot breath on my neck as I described sliding in fiber optic cables”.

Rounding out this whole mess is the plot. The werecats of Africa are in town for a public high-level alliance with the vampires of New Orleans, to ensure their safety. Map check: New Orleans is in America, near Florida, which is nowhere near Africa. An alliance is pointless. Sexy elf swordman is the anti-insane-vampire creature, but was thrown out 50 years ago after an argument so bad they forgot he was vital to vampire ecology. As were the werewolves. They now have proof the head vampire committed murder and are pursuing legal remedies. But get bored and hire wizards to help them attack vampire HQ. Finally, the head vampire’s 2nd bodyguard has also been killing people and planting evidence to frame the sexy head bodyguard. Jane sums it up at the end: “there were so many plots no one could have figured it out”.

It’s not so much that it’s stuffed full of something for everyone. It’s the general incompleteness of it all. She’s multi-cultural – well, sort of. She’s more like a white man with a few scenes dropped in. But my biggest beef is she works for your basic city-running vampire. Those guys are supposed to be soulless and evil. You tolerate them, or work with them against something worse. It’s against the genre.

My ultimate beef is the deux ex machina of scent. At first her puma form can smell some clues. Then she turns into a bloodhound to really track one particular scent. Then we give up trying to explain. She can now smell werewolves in a moving car from 1/2 a mile away. From the scent of her boyfriend’s day-old blood she can tell he’s not dead. The last few chapters – she just smells everywhere she needs to be. Which is fine, since anyone who has a problem with that has quit reading long before now, anyway.

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The Black Parade

The best part of The Black Parade, by Kyoko M, are the heroine’s feelings for her ex-boyfriend. He’s a Mr. Right who treats her well and wants a family. But she’s terminally poor, since her supernatural job pays nothing; an orphan – her mom died in an asylum – and drinks too much. He’ll eventually realize she’s not good enough. It’s sad when we find out that she’s the one who broke it off. The second best part are the 3 men fighting for her love: the ex-BF comes back and still wants her; she saved an Angel’s life and now he’s falling in love with her; and an evil demon, who originally needed to human-sacrifice her, is now sending her sex dreams to convince her to be his slutty eternal queen. Third best part: her platonic angel friend watches her put on a slinky black dress to go on a second date with Mr. Right. On the way she’s cut-up all over by a monster, forcing her to cancel the date and go back to the Angel. He’s forced to magically heal her by kissing and licking her entire body, during which time they realize they love each other.

So, obviously, the book is totally a paranormal romance. A later one in the series even has a cover from the “bare-chested faceless man” stock photo collection. If you care about a plot, or anything unique, skip this series. But it’s interesting since it seemed to start as a real book.

The jacket tells us she needs to help 100 ghosts find peace in two years, or she’ll be sent to hell. OK, it actually starts with her having 2 days left to save the final 3 ghosts. Even so, that could be fun – a tense 3 days. We see her scrambling to work at the diner, the manager with a soft spot for oddballs like her, her best waitress friend who knows not to pry and is mid-divorce anyway. It turns out ghosts are easy to save, but you need to be ready at all times, work quickly and be a good listener (you don’t get “Dead Like Me”‘s notes with the time and place). She meets an oddball ghost, who gets more and more mysterious… . Then we toss all that away. It’s like someone took over 1/3rd of the way through. The plot is now incompetent demons chasing her and her angel bodyguard, as they “banter”.

I’m going to say that the author isn’t trying for a genre – she’s just writing what she feels like, which is an urban fantasy for a few chapters, then a romance where the action jumps around much more than usual. I can’t even figure this one out: at the end of the book, after being only about her and her magically buff angel lover, the heroine goes to ex-boyfriend Mr. Right’s funeral. His mom never liked her, but his sister was always really nice. They catch up before the service, and make plans to stay in touch. That makes no sense in either genre. But it’s kind of fun.

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