It comes as little surprise that Catie Murphy's debut Urban Shaman has an appreciative blurb from Jim Butcher on its cover. Murphy has clearly learned everything she knows from Butcher, and Urban Shaman reads like nothing so much as her own attempt at a Harry Dresden novel. To her credit, Murphy has some ideas up her sleeves that are fresher than many offered up by Butcher. But she has yet to find her own voice, and the clichés she dredges up in this book, yet another exercise in magic invading modern American cities to the bewilderment of their denizens, are sufficient to mute whetever effect her storytelling has at the times it actually gets good.
Let's check the shopping list, shall we? Angsty but self-actualizing heroine with Attitude™? Yup. First-person narration set to Snark Overdrive? Checkerino. Pop-culture references? Here and there. Self-consciously comedic, banter-heavy dialogue running the gamut from "very glib" to "glib" and "somewhat glib"? Plenty of that. Frankly if I never see any of these off-the-shelf parts again, it'll be fifty years too soon. But I suppose it's easy for an enthusiastic literary ingenue to become swayed by ideas, reinforced by editors with their eyes on the prize, of What Sells.
It isn't simply a dearth of originality that hampers Urban Shaman, however. Most of this genre is unoriginal. Butcher's swipes are so numerous they have to take a number and wait in line. But Butcher has a mercurial, Tarantino-esque quality of throwing all his influences into a blender and coming up with something that bears his stamp. Not only is Murphy not there yet, but her novel has an unnecessarily cluttered narrative, and she chooses to open the story with so many scenes that knee your willing suspension of disbelief in the groin that discriminating readers might not feel receptive to the rest of the book.
Joanne Walker is a woman of both Cherokee and Celtic ancestry who works for the Seattle police as an auto mechanic. As she is flying home from her mother's funeral in Ireland, she happens to spot, from the air, as her plane is making its final approach, the following: a young woman running down a darkened street into a church parking lot lit only by a single street light, pursued by what appear to be wild dogs, towards a man waiting in said parking lot brandishing a butterfly knife. That's right, she can tell from a moving airplane several hundred feet up that it's a butterfly knife.
When a novel starts with a scene this ludicrous, usually the only sensible course of action is to bin the thing and move to the next book in the stack. But writers deserve a chance to explain themselves, and I wondered, perhaps this will all make sense. Maybe Murphy will reveal that this special vision is some latent magic power of which Joanne's been previously anaware.
But the sad truth is that Urban Shaman gets worse, before it (finally) gets better. Better being a relative term. Murphy seems to be aware that the above is outlandish, so she has other characters hang a big lampshade on it. ("You saw all that from a plane, lady?") When her plane lands, Joanne first harangues the pilot for doing nothing to save this woman, as if it were the responsibility of airlines to investigate crimes and not that of the police. Then she hails a cab, whose driver soon becomes her sidekick for the rest of the book, and speeds off in the hopes of finding the darkened church parking lot and rescuing this woman.
At a point like this in a story, I usually pause, rub my temples, and wonder where in Christ's name publishing companies are digging up editors these days. Homeless shelters, perhaps? Maybe halfway houses for psychiatric patients? Maybe they just go through Amazon, find undemanding clods who give everything they see printed on paper five stars with gushing remarks like "OMG it was soooooo kewl!" and e-mail them with job offers. In any case, no, Joanne does not call the police to report what she witnessed. Even though she is a cop, sort of — though she only works as a machanic, she's been through the academy. Don't police cadets learn a thing or two about getting into dangerous situations by themselves, like, calling for backup? Well, Joanne don't need no stinking backup. She hares off into a scary part of town to find a possible violent crime in progress with only a plucky septuagenarian cabbie at her side.
She of course finds the church, finds the girl, and learns that the young lady, Marie, was being pursued by none less than the Celtic Horned God Cernunnos and his men and beasts of the High Hunt. She's also a banshee, who can sense when someone's death is imminent. This being an urban fantasy, Marie's story is met with negligible skepticism; but then, in a world where crimes on the ground are witnessed from moving airplanes at night, I imagine anything goes.
To cut a long story short, Cernunnos is in conflict with his son, Herne the Hunter (who also figures in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising), who is smarting from an ancient betrayal and seeks to usurp the High Hunt from his father. Cernunnos in turn has only days to find a new Rider — the one who guides the Hunt to the souls of the dying — before Samhain. As the story progresses, things get a little more interesting as Joanne must acknowledge and control her own shamanic powers in order to battle both these ancient warriors. This begins with an admission of her real name — Siobhán Walkingstick — and continues through several encounters with a coyote spirit guide, who coaches her (via the requisite urban-fantasy wiseass dialogue) on her healing abilities. The ability to spot running women and discern butterfly knives from moving airplanes is never clarified as a shamanic power.
Though Murphy's combining of Celtic and native American myths is a nice touch, her plot unspools in a needlessly busy and cluttered way. She'll string you along for a while without a clear understanding of why events are unfolding the way they are (which is usually how to do good suspense, true), and then hit you with a big, murky infodump by way of explanation. Throughout the story, Joanne is harried by both Herne and Cernunnos, ending up nearly killed so frequently I imagine a world record has been set for hard-done-by pulp heroes. And though the bulk of the book's logical failings end up confined to its first hundred pages, little infelicities still dog the story. (Why do none of Joanne's fellow officers, even her hardass superior, take much interest in the big guy on horseback with the horns and the massive sword who nearly kills Joanne early in the book, even though he was seen by a presumably traumatized waitress and caught on a security camera?)
There's just too much about Urban Shaman that's a damn mess for the book to work. Does Murphy have sufficient talent to shine as a writer were she ever to polish her very rough edges? Seems that way, and that's the frustrating thing. But I have plenty of willingness to cut first-time novelists all the slack they need. (Their editors are another matter.) I do hope, now that she has this story out of her system, that Murphy will strive for better in her future work. She has plenty of time to work out the kinks before Urban Shaman's inevitable sequel.
Finally, I must say that this was the first book I read from Luna, the fantasy line published by legendary romance imprint Harlequin, even though they've been publishing now for about two years. If there was one thing keeping me from trying Luna, it was the concern that the books may be little more than formula romance novels that happened to have fantasy settings. While Urban Shaman suffers from its adherence to plenty of other formulas, it is most assuredly not a paperback romance, which indicates that Harlequin is honestly pursuing the fantasy genre with the Luna imprint, and that guys perhaps need not be resistant to trying one of their books for fear of the mush factor. Hey, I know, I've come late in the day to this realization, but better late disabusing one's preconceptions than never, right?