Thursday, February 28, 2008

SPOTLIGHT: Detective Wizards, Vampire Hunters, and Werewolves Oh My!

The wizard detective, the vampire hunter, the werewolf D.J, these are but three of the popular characters in one of increasingly popular subgenres of speculative fiction. Some call it supernatural fantasy, others urban horror, while others call it urban/dark fantasy. No matter what it is called, readers know what it is and have been gobbling up many of the titles over the past ten years or so as the this subgenre has exploded (yeah, next I’ll tell genre readers that the sun rises every day). Just check out this fairly extensive discussion at SFFWorld. For my part, I’ve read some of the authors but by no means have I read all of them, nor would I completely consider myself an expert on the subgenre. However, I am finding myself drawn to books of this ilk more strongly. Writers like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, and Charles de Lint wander into this territory, but they are not exactly the authors to whom I’m referring. What follows is just a brief overview of some of the writers/series.

Laurell K. Hamilton
When and why has the subgenre proven so successful? The character and set of books that kickstarted this trend would arguably be Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series. These books were able to catch on to the genre-reading public in no small part because of the success of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and perhaps more so, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV). Although the Anita Blake books may not have been the earliest in the latest trend, they have proven extremely popular. Vampires have always fascinated people and between Rice’s success in humanizing them and the strong, powerful female protagonist, Hamilton’s series is in retrospect a no brainer for success. Of the Anita Blake novels, I read the first four or five before being pulled away. Readers have criticized the later books for being little more than erotic fantasy with an overabundance of sex, but the early books are very good and are considered by some as a benchmark in this subgenre.

Jim Butcher
Another ingredient for the success of this subgenre probably has something to do with the presence of these creatures in the “modern/real” world and people possessing arcane abilities in modern society. Another highly popular example of this would be Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Harry Dresden is the only practicing wizard listed in the Chicago yellow pages and as such, he is on retainer to the Chicago PD’s Special Investigations division. Cases involving werewolves, vampires, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night are his purvey and when the Police can’t wrap their heads around such a case, they call in Harry. I’ve only read three of these books but they could turn out to be a favorite series if the books continue to entertain me in the same fashion. The series is in the double digits with little sign of slowing down, so the good part is that there are plenty of books for me to read. The world Butcher has created for this milieu is incredibly detailed, and very well thought-out. He’s got the White Council, which is the governing body of the practice of magic, several Vampire Clans, a faerie world (Nevernever) two which Harry travels. A sure sign of the success of this series is that it started out in Mass Market Paperback and with the 5th or 6th book, jumped into Hardcover for the initial release of each book.

A short-lived series on the SciFi channel might have helped to raise the awareness of this already popular series (the first book, Storm Front, is probably in its 20th printing by now), but got the Axe. After a slow start, the series really gained momentum but the ratings apparently weren’t to SciFi’s liking, despite being somewhat comparable to those of Eureka and the abysmal Flash Gordon.
SFFWorld’s Hobbit reviewed many of the books in the series, beware spoilers though: (1) Storm Front (2) Fool Moon (3) Grave Peril (4) Summer Knight (5) Death Masks (6) Blood Rites

Glen Cook
Before Anita Blake and Jim Butcher; however, Glen Cook was writing a little series about Garrett (Glen Cook Wiki entry), a Private Investigator in a “Fantasyland” called TunFaire. I personally haven’t read the books, but one member of the SFFWorld forums whose opinion I can trust (KatG) consistently recommends this series. From what I’ve gathered, the series functions very much like a hard-boiled detective story with goblins, orcs, and wizards thrown in the mix. Based on my enjoyment of Cook’s Dread Empire and Black Company, I’ve really got to check out these books, of which there are already 11 books.

Carrie Vaughn
A werewolf in modern times should be able to fit in, shouldn’t she, especially if wizards and vampires can? Well, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville is doing her best as a radio talk show host in the series that bears her name. The first book, Kitty and the Midnight Hour published in 2005 to some positive reviews, including my own review. The fourth book is out this year and the Science Fiction Book Club put the first three books under one cover in one of their popular omnibus editions. The subsequent books seem to follow the trend of pleasing readers.

Liz Williams
Liz Williams
has a very strong series going with her Detective Inspector Chen novels. At least based on the first novel, the series seems to be working with a buddy-cop/police procedural template whilst mixing elements of magic and Chinese/Asian mythology. Night Shade Books is publishing this series, which is helping to make their already impressive list of authors even more impressive. Also, the first book Snake Agent was one of the launch titles for Night Shade’s Mass Market Paperback line. This is a very promising series as I said in my recent review of Snake Agent.

Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt (writing as T.A. Pratt) is two books into his Marla Mason series. I’ve only read a short story from that world, but what I saw I liked. The short story had a very Lovecraftian feel to it and I’ve got the first book, Blood Engines, on my To Buy pile. Here’s a nice review from Robert over at FantasyBookCritic.

Kim Harrison
Kim Harrison is another popular writer who seems to churn out a new book every year in her Rachel Morgan/The Hollows series. On the surface, the series blends elements of post-apocalyptic fiction with the “wizard detective,” or in this case, the “witch detective.” Morgan is similar to Harry in that she is an adjunct of sorts to the local law enforcement. I think the post-apocalyptic elements to this series sound interesting so I will eventually check out the books. My friend’s wife really digs this series, so I may just have to borrow the first book. Here is a recent discussion at SFFWorld.

Other authors worth mentioning include:
Kelley ArmstrongWomen of Otherworld
Rachel CaineWeather Warderns & Morganvilee Vampires
Simon GreenNightside
Justin GustainisQuincey Morris Supernatural Investigation
Charlaine HarrisSookie Stackhouse
Charlie HustonJoe Pitt Casefiles (My review of Already Dead)
C.E. MurphyThe Walker Papers
Rob Thurman – series begun with Nightlife

Wikipedia helped me sort out a couple of things with this little article as did the folks in the SFFWorld forums, including the participants in the Supernatural Fantasy: Ghosts, Vampires, Werefolk and Wizards tread.

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