Tag Archives: urban fantasy

Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.

Men

  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.

Women

  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?

Addendum:

Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

Review: Roaring Blood

Roaring Blood
Roaring Blood by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is the second in the Demon-Hearted series.

Lucy (Lucian) Colt is back, and starting to learn a bit more about the side effects of his demon heart-transplant. He’s also convinced he can kick serious necromancer ass without any of that wishy-washy teamwork stuff. And you just know how that’s going to go.

If you want a main character who’s an all-round good guy, who’s nice to old ladies and upright and honest and all that, go and read a different book. Lucy reminds me of no-one so much as Flashman (a la George MacDonald Fraser), except with arrogance and recklessness instead of cowardice. What saves him as a protagonist, though, is that Lucy – like Flashman – is shatteringly honest about his own shortcomings. Lucy’s voice as the protagonist-narrator is what makes these books. He’s like that guy who you want to smack a lot of the time, but you still can’t help liking him.

Plotwise, I thought the first book in the series (Raw Power) suffered from a bit of pacing problem. Ibsen has definitely sorted that out for this one: the action starts early and doesn’t let up. There’s lots of zombies, lots of violence and mayhem, right up till the very end. Admittedly, you won’t find much in the way of complexity here, but sometimes, that’s not what you want from a book. Sometimes, you want a likeable (sort of) protagonist and lots of zombie-killing, and that is precisely what this book delivers.

I picked up this series for something to read while waiting for Jim Butcher’s Peace Talks to come out: I really needed some urban fantasy that didn’t have any hints of romance, and Roaring Blood fills that hole admirably. Not only is there no hint of romance, but poor Lucy’s love life has got to be even worse than Harry Dresden’s.

Demon-Hearted has something of the feel of the Dresden Files, which may be due to the first-person narration by a main character who is saved from being someone you want to kick in the nuts by his self-deprecating sense of humour. I like a flawed protagonist; both Harry and Lucy screw up (big time, in Lucy’s case), but they admit it, and they learn from it (slowly, in both cases). I do wonder where Ibsen will take Lucy; he needs to move on, and I think the events of Roaring Blood indicate that he is starting to do so. I also wonder whether Ibsen will do what Butcher has, and widen his world – one of the strengths of the Dresden Files is the cast of supporting characters. There is at least one character introduced in Roaring Blood that I’d like to see again.

I’ll definitely be reading the next book – Happy End of the World.

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Review: The Restorer

The Restorer
The Restorer by Amanda Stevens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I Liked
Well, I burned through this in about 24 hours. That should tell you pretty much all you need to know. However…

Amelia. Amelia is not your usual urban fantasy/horror heroine. So far, she doesn’t seem to have mad martial arts skills, she doesn’t have some amazing world-destroying power, and she isn’t drop-dead gorgeous (but insecure). Nor does she have a string of alpha-males panting after her. She’s a pretty ordinary woman running her own business – except for her ability to see ghosts.

This ghost-seeing thing was something else I liked about this book/world. It’s not what you might call a power – more like a problem. If the ghosts know you can see them, they’ll be able to fasten on you and suck your life energy away. Cool stuff. So Amelia spends her life avoiding ghosts, and the people they haunt – hence the job that means she can spend a lot of time on hallowed ground, where she’s safe from ghosts.

I liked Amelia for her very ordinariness; it gave the story a scarier feel, I think. There wasn’t that comfortable disconnect that comes from reading about a character who’s so gorgeous and powerful that you can’t quite believe in them.

There’s obviously some background involved that we don’t get – maybe that’s for a later book.

I also liked that Amelia has a trade, and we get a few little details about what cemetery restoration involves. What can I say? I like collecting odd little bits of knowledge.

The World. Interestingly, this is pretty much the real world, except for the existence of ghosts (and maybe some other stuff). But – at least as far as has been revealed – you’re not tripping over werewolves and vampires everywhere you go. This is also a pleasant change (not that I’ve anything against werewolves and vampires, but it’s nice to have a change of pace every now and then).

It’s pretty obvious that there are things Amelia doesn’t know about – hopefully, we’ll find out more in later books.

The feel of this book is different from most urban fantasy – it’s quieter and creepier, and I’d put it somewhere between urban fantasy and horror.

What I Could Have Done Without
That thing where someone says “I’m going to tell you there’s a secret, but I’m not going to tell you what it is, or I’m going to be interrupted before I tell you.” It’s so… done to death.

Other
I did spot who the murderer was quite early on – although not why.

Conclusion
A solid four-star read; it only doesn’t get five stars because it didn’t have that extra special sort of something. However, I’m definitely going to read the others in the series, and can recommend this unreservedly for anyone who wants UF/horror that works on the creep-factor rather than just splashing blood about.

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Review: Raw Power

Raw Power
Raw Power by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ordinary bloke gets demon heart-transplant and finds it does more than just pump blood. Plus, he now has a new job, and life has got more complicated.

What I Liked
Lucian. Lucian (who doesn’t like being called ‘Lucy’, but had probably better get used to it) rang true for me. He’s bright but lazy, making a reasonable living prodding buttock and collecting debts – and, later on, art. He’s allowed himself to drift to where he is, without thinking about any of the morality involved – and he’s so overconfident you just know he’s in for a shock. Shocks. In short, he comes off as a realistic twenty-something lad with more testosterone than brains (and since he’s a bright lad, that’s a lot of testosterone). However, he has enough self-awareness to make him someone I would actually like to spend time with.

The whole demon-heart business. This is a new idea, or at least a sufficiently new spin on an old idea that it looks new. There’s some interesting hints that we’ll see more ramifications later on in the series.

Lucian again. Lucian doesn’t go from ordinary ass-kicker to supernatural hero overnight; he does what most twenty-something lads would do in that position: he screws up. Repeatedly. It’s the testosterone thing again. It can be irritating to watch, but Ibsen made the right decision, I think. Lucian is a more interesting character for being just a bit morally ambiguous, just a bit too laddish for his own good. It’s just not realistic for an ordinary person to be given some kind of supernatural power and then to immediately think “With great power comes great responsibility; I must be sensible and mature from now on.”

The magic system. We don’t actually get much information on the magic system, but Ibsen seems to have some interesting ideas.

What could have been improved
Pacing. Apart from a few blips, everything seemed to go a bit too much according to plan. There wasn’t that sense of imminent failure and risk that heightens the tension late on in most books.

Character interactions. I’ve observed before that the best urban fantasy (at least, for me) tends to be where the main character has a team he can bounce off. Where the character is isolated, either because he has no friends, or because his colleagues aren’t sharing, it makes the story a bit two-dimensional. I’m hoping that in further books, Ibsen will lighten up and let the other characters have a bit more page time (come on, Ibsen, you’ve set up some really good stuff and I want to know!).

Conclusion
This is a solid three-star read for me; I can’t quite justify giving it four stars, not when I compare it to such authors as Kim Harrison, Faith Hunter, Jim Butcher et al. However, I think Ibsen definitely has the potential to get there. Technical things like pacing can always be sorted out with practice; what Ibsen has is the ability to write an engaging character whom you’re actually interested in reading about – and I think that’s more difficult to learn.

So, Ibsen is a new author I’m going to read more of. I love it when that happens. 🙂

I’ve already bought Book 2, Roaring Blood, which has zombies.

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Review: The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

This short story introduces both Claire (who has recently discovered she is part-succubus, which explains a lot but is basically Bad News for her), and Lucas, who is an alpha werewolf (Bad News for other people).

Being a succubus means that there’s a risk that you may flip out and cause an orgy by pumping pheromones into the air around you. Being a werewolf means you can flip out and rip people into little pieces.

Pay attention, because these people are going to reappear in later books, I think.

What I Liked

Claire. I liked Claire immediately; her life has just been turned upside down by the news that she’s now classified as Supernatural, and Kovak gets a nice balance between too much complaining about the unfairness of it all (whiny and annoying) and too brave and calm (not believable). She comes off as real, and someone that I wouldn’t mind spending time with in real life.

Lucas. Now, this came as a real shock. Generally, I hate alpha male characters because they tend to be a) interchangeable and b) a$$holes who need to die. Lucas actually has a personality, and his role in the story is more than just object-of-heroine’s-lust. Kovak has put in some other things that made him different from the usual run of interchangeable alphas, which you will discover when you read the story.

The situation. Honestly, I don’t think that the blurb does this justice, because the blurb implies that we’re going to get a sort of standard unpopular-girl-does-something-embarrassing-in-class situation, and the alpha will feel sorry for her, mop up her tears, and they’ll get together…. Not happening. This is not one of those nasty, preachy books where the author tries to beat you over the head with Issues – but, really, people, the potential to accidentally cause a pheromone-induced orgy amongst a bunch of people who might be strangers (or, worse, family!) isn’t amusing. Who is to blame when people end up having sex with people they wouldn’t normally choose to? What might the consequences of removing everybody’s inhibitions be? Kovak has thought through the implications for the people involved; it’s not played for laughs, and we end up with a far more satisfying read for it.

The background world. This is a short story; we don’t find out much about the background because there just isn’t the space, but Kovak has set up something interesting. Reminds of me of some parallels in American history, which you will discover when you read the story.

What I Didn’t Like

Honestly, there wasn’t anything, and I can usually find something to bitch about.

Conclusion

  • The characters are young-adult, but the “feel” is more mature, so don’t be put off by that.
  • The sex is part of the plot, thanks for that, Kovak. Also, not overdone.
  • Thoroughly recommended; I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest. Kovak’s got a fan here, I think. 🙂

Writing a short story

pen-and-paperI’m a member of the New Street Authors writers’ group, and at the last meeting, someone had the bright idea of producing a group anthology. One short story from each of us. Of course, we said. Great idea, we said.

OK, write a story by the end of July. Subject: New Street, Birmingham.

Ah.

My writing has always tended towards novels, just like my reading. I’ve never been much for short stories. However, short stories are useful for an indie writer – they’re good publicity material, if nothing else. Write some, publish and price them free – and people can try your writing out, risk free. Plus, short stories can be fun – if you’re writing (or reading) in a series, short stories are good to explore ideas or secondary characters that are never going to get their own novel, for one reason or another.

But writing short stories is different to novels – and even though my number of novels currently stands at <1, I know that.

Firstly, you can’t use the same kind of idea. Novels sprawl. Anything more than 50,000 words is a novel, which gives you an awful lot of room to play with. A short story is generally accepted as under 7,500 words. You can’t just take a novel-type idea and chop bits off until it fits. You have to find an idea that is naturally <7,500 words long. This is a good thing. Think about all those ideas that you binned because there just wasn’t enough there to make a novel: those are short-story (or novella) ideas. This does not mean that they are necessarily less good. Think Fabergé. Just because it isn’t a Tintoretto that covers an entire wall in the gallery doesn’t make Fabergé’s little jewelled eggs any less art. They are small and perfect in every detail. That’s short stories: an idea that is exactly the right size, perfectly delivered.

Secondly, if you worry too much about word count as you’re writing your first draft, you’ll never get anywhere. That’s pretty much the same for novels, but with short stories the pressure to keep your writing tight is greater. With a novel, you might cut thousands of words when you edit your first draft. With a short story, every paragraph, every line, counts, and it induces a sense of paranoia. But that’s for later. Just get the damn thing down. Worry about word count later. Apart from anything else, the first draft often shows you that what you thought was going to work, actually doesn’t. Write now. Fix it later.

Thirdly, everyone knows that novels take ages to write (“ages” being anything from about a month to fifty years). Not until you try to write a short story do you realise that the same thing is true of short stories. It may only be 7,500 words, but it’s probably not going to be something you can knock out in a day. Accept it, and keep typing.

Right… back to the carnivorous worms.

Review: Shadow Rites

Shadow Rites
Shadow Rites by Faith Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Shadow Rites Faith Hunter has done it again. The book starts with immediate action – a magical attack on Jane’s house. Who is responsible, and why? What did they hope to achieve? Jane has other problems, too, with the Witch Council coming to New Orleans, and Yellowrock Securities being responsible for security at the event. She’s pretty sure that it isn’t going to be straightforward, and indeed, she proves to be right.

There’s a mad master vampire in a pit, eyes on people’s hands, and other mysterious magics that are doubtless going to come back to bite Jane later. If Faith Hunter had this planned all along (and I think she probably did), I’m going to have to go back and read the earlier books to see what I missed! This kind of thing is, for me, the mark of an excellent author – one who lays plans years in advance, waiting to ambush her readers with something amazing that they didn’t see coming (but should have, except that the author sneakily distracted them). I love reading book #10 and thinking “So that’s why X happened in book #1.”

Since witches are involved, Molly, Angie, Evan and little Evan are featured in this book. Molly is becoming less irritating as a character, and less inclined to screw up, expect Jane to sort out the problem, and then blame Jane for the results. Angie, too, is coming into her own. I’m starting to like Angie – she’s growing out of the cutesy-little-girl phase and showing hints of being a young lady to be reckoned with.

And Edmund. I do like Edmund. Once again, one gets the distinct impression that Edmund is playing his own game – a long, deep one. The stakes (ha!) must be high, because he’s taking some big risks. He’s also got a sly sense of humour that most people don’t notice.

Jane, too, is developing. At the beginning of the series, she was working on her own. Now she’s got partners and family. She’s building a life in New Orleans, and I’m wondering when she’ll realise it.

I’m thoroughly looking forward Cold Reign, which is the next in the series.

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Review: Burned, by Benedict Jacka

Burned
Burned by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, Alex Verus is up against it. He’s been sentenced to death, and has only a week in which to get the sentence reversed. And the sentence also applies to his “dependants” – Luna, Variam and Anne.

The book consists mostly of Alex trying to win votes to get the sentence reversed, and to remove the three young people from the list of his dependants so that they escape being collateral damage.
This was a quick read, and quite enjoyable. I do like the way Jacka has written Alex as someone who is not traditionally powerful, in the sense of being able to blow things up, but can still be very dangerous simply because of his ability to know what comes next. It’s an interesting demonstration of how power isn’t always synonymous with physical strength or force.

I also enjoyed the bits of book where Anne appeared – she’s my favourite character; she tries hard to be ethical and do the right thing – even when all she gets is hatred and suspicion. In some ways, I think she’s a more complex character than Alex. For me, she certainly more sympathetic. I could imagine going out for the evening with Anne and enjoying it.

On the other hand…

As another reviewer has pointed out, this whole book could have been condensed into a couple of chapters stuck on the front of the next book.

There are some substantial changes all around, so I do wonder if this book functions as a hiatus in the overarching plot to allow Jacka to move all his characters around into new positions for the next phase. It would certainly explain a lot.

Overall, although I think this is the weakest book in the series so far, there is still enough in it to make an enjoyable read, provided you are already invested in the series. Hopefully, the next book will see the plot back on track.

And the reason why I think Burned is the weakest in the series follows, but it’s spoilery so don’t scroll down if you don’t like spoilers.

I am also getting rather tired of everybody lining up to kill Alex. I mean, why? The guy just runs a magic shop. He’s hardly creating his own power bloc, so why are all these people – Light and Dark alike – so obsessed with him? The amount of time and resources being thrown at the Kill Alex Verus project is getting hard to believe without some indication of why all of these people feel it’s so important to either kill him or recruit him, rather than just ignore him. And where are the decent mages? Statistically speaking, Alex should have come across a few more of them who are not psychotic and/or amoral. The longer this series goes on, the more it becomes difficult to believe that Alex hasn’t managed to acquire more allies/friends.

 

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Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

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Review: Hidden, by Benedict Jacka

Hidden

I actually finished this book a few weeks ago – I read it in one or two sittings. This is, in my opinion, the best Alex Verus book so far (although you do need to have read the previous books in order to know what’s going on).

A weakness of previous books was – in my opinion – Alex’s isolation. Pretty much everyone in his world was against him, and, for the earlier books, the secondary characters (e.g. his apprentices) were much less powerful than he was and featured more as people Alex needed to protect than true comrades. In Hidden much of that appears to be changing. It’s no longer quite Alex-against-the-world (which gets old after a while), and I think it’s a vast improvement because the greater participation of other characters allows a richer story.

And, of course, we get to see much more of Anne – who is one of my favourite characters – and learn more about why she is the way she is.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Veiled.