The urban fantasy glut continues apace with this series opener from Nancy Holzner. Deadtown splits its inspiration fairly equally between Joss Whedon and George Romero. I found it a pretty average urban fantasy offering, which means those of you who are rabid devotees of the genre will think it's awesome. The setting is Boston, and the world is one in which humans live uneasily among such paranormal denizens as (let's go down the list) vampires, werewolves, demons, ninja wombats, and so on. Actually, I was kidding about the ninja wombats. Boston is unique in also having a zombie population, the result of a mysterious plague whose origins might have been more convincing in the story's context had Holzner just gone with some kind of full-on sorcerous explanation, rather than chalking it up to a "one-in-a-billion mutation."
Anyway, here the standard snarky first-person heroine duties are filled by Victory (Vicky) Vaughn, a shapeshifter descended from the Welsh Cerddorion race. Vicky lives in Deadtown, Boston's fenced-off enclave for "monsters," with her ditzy vampire roommate, and she's training up a ditzy zombie girl assistant in the tricks of her trade. Vicky's trade is that of demon slayer. She ventures into the dreams of her clients, in an Inception-y kind of way, to rid them of the demons that plague them. But while some demons come from within, still others come from without. Soon Vicky finds herself targeted by Difethwr, a hellish Hellion from Hell that, in a moment of adolescent impetuousness, she herself summoned years before, leading to an encounter that killed her father. Difethwr wants to take care of unfinished business. He also wants to demolish Boston, which, depending on whom you ask, may or may not be such a bad idea. But it still seems awfully short-sighted to me. Difethwr could stand to gain far more fame and prestige by licensing his name and likeness to a death metal band.
Truth to tell, I did find plenty to enjoy in Deadtown. The book actually works best when it tries for something a little deeper than simple escapism. Ironically, when simple escapism is its main focus, it stumbles.
Holzner's Romero inspiration doesn't lie in her portrayal of her zombies (who are perfectly fine with blood but more than happy to just wolf down junk food all day), so much as in her use of macabre fiction as a vehicle for satire and social commentary. Deadtown's very best moments are when it functions as an allegory about the divisive and destructive politics of race prejudice. Indeed, the book is almost alarmingly timely in that regard. Though it was released at the beginnning of 2010, much of what goes on in its pages mirrors with frightening accuracy the rise in racial and religious unrest that tainted the American political landscape in the spring and summer of that year. Holzner not only depicts the way cynical politicians exploit the people's bigotry for their own gain, but she also shows how some of those who seek to fight prejudice can become self-righteous and too caught up in their own noble ambitions to see how their efforts might hurt those they think they're helping. Vicky's boyfriend, Alexander Kane, is an activist werewolf lawyer who insists on such PC terminology as "Paranormal Americans" and "previously deceased humans" (for zombies). His attempt to shoot a political commercial conveying a message of human/paranormal equality collapses into a smoking heap of epic fail. It's as if he's more invested in his cause than the subjects of his cause.
This is all good stuff. Would that Holzner had stuck with it more. For the rest of the story, Holzner satisfies the cravings of her romance-seeking readers by having Vicky torn between her desire for the workaholic and self-absorbed Kane, and the sensitive but possibly married hunk of human detective, Daniel Costello. As for her beef with Difethwr, well, really, the whole "revenge for killing my father" thing was showing its age about two thousand martial arts movies ago. Much of the dramatic tension the story needs here is defused before it has a chance to explode. Difethwr has broken through a magic shield designed to keep Hellions out of Boston, which means there must be a sorcerer somewhere controlling the demon in secret. Unless your brain is undead, it will take you roughly a femtosecond to figure out which character this is.
Vicky is actually given not one, but two villains to vanquish. The other figures in a subplot about a Cruella de Villish scientist who wants DNA from Paranormal Americans in the hope of finding a "cure," and isn't all that scrupulous about how she gets it. Like the main plot thread, this starts well with some incisive allegory. Vicky has a sister, Gwen, who has left behind her paranormal heritage for a normal human life as a suburban wife and mom, but Vicky's little niece may yet blossom into a full-blown Cerddorian. It's easy to draw parallels between Gwen's hope her daughter may yet be "normal," and the similar, misguided desire many conservative parents have when they learn their child might be gay. Read this way, there is real pathos to some early scenes. But it just resolves into an action setpiece that relies on that cheapest and most cynically manipulative form of button-mashing — putting a child in peril — for its suspense.
Fannish reviews of this book will almost certainly describe Vicky as a "sassy," "edgy" and "kickass" heroine. But really, this makes her pretty hard to distinguish from most other urban fantasy grrrls. In urban fantasy, these are the kinds of character attributes that come pre-installed, like Explorer and Outlook, and they function just as perfunctorily. Still, there is room for Holzner to develop Vicky in the inevitable sequels. For one thing, I'd like to see her a bit smarter next time, and less inclined to walk knowingly into obvious traps. And though Holzner hasn't shown an inclination towards too much originality in her paranormal concepts, there's room for that to improve as well. Maybe someday, we'll even get ninja wombats.