23 May 2016

Naked City

A review of Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow (St Martin’s Griffin, 2011) – originally published in Interzone

Another month, another anthology of urban fantasy – or so it seems. In the last issue of Interzone I reviewed Peter Beagle and Joe Lansdale’s recent volume, while George Martin and Gardner Dozois’s new collection is due out next month.

In their take on the genre, Peter Beagle and Joe Lansdale set out to define urban fantasy and classify it into a number of sub-genres, which they illustrated by means of a number of carefully selected previously published stories. In her new anthology, Ellen Datlow has taken a very different tack: she commissioned a series of new stories from a range of authors with the brief that the city in which the story was set should be as important to the story as anything else.

Perhaps most striking is the sheer diversity of the twenty stories in this collection. That diversity is echoed in the title, Naked City, which recalls the documentary/crime photography of Weegee, a crime movie and a spin-off TV series, which had the catchphrase, ‘There are eight million stories in the naked city, this has been one of them.’ Here we have detective stories, supernatural romance, vampires, soft science fiction, possible steampunk, humour and outright horror. There is traditional fantasy and there are one or two offbeat stories that refuse to be categorized. There are historical settings and contemporary settings in cities that include London, Berlin, Haifa and, of course, New York, while other stories are set in cities entirely of the imagination.

Several are set in existing fictional universes. Of these I had previously read only Ellen Kushner’s Swordpoint (the novel behind her contribution, ‘The Duke of Riverside’). So this volume has given me a welcome introduction to several new novels and in one or two cases new novelists, notably Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (on the strength of ‘Curses’, the opening story of the collection, because I’m a sucker for supernatural detective fiction) and Melissa Marr’s Graveminder (because I enjoyed her transposition of noir to a contemporary Hades).

With contributions from the likes of Pat Cadigan, Lucius Shephard, Lavie Tidhar, John Crowley and Naomi Novik, there are many gems in this collection, but my personal favourite was, undoubtedly, ‘Oblivion by Calvin Klein’, a striking piece by Christopher Fowler. Set in the department stores of London, this story focuses on the city as the home of consumerism. For the protagonist of the story, shopping has become a drug and as a compensation for the lack of sexual satisfaction in her marriage. Beneath a veneer of biting wit, Fowler has hidden an uncompromising attack on consumerist values. But, for me, the real highlight of this story is his language, which simply makes it a joy to read.

Inevitably in a collection of such diversity, there were some stories I didn’t enjoy. For example, Peter Beagle’s ‘Underbridge’ is well written, but the protagonist is an unpleasant character who meets an unpleasant (and, once the story is set up, rather predictable) end. Another one that didn’t work for me was Jeffrey Ford’s ‘Daddy Longlegs of the Evening’, which read like straightforward horror rather than dark fantasy. For some reason, the urban setting did not seem particularly important in this story (unless perhaps the possessing spider is to be taken as some kind of metaphor for the dehumanizing effect of the city).

Taken as a whole, Naked City is a fascinating snapshot of the state of urban fantasy in 2011. It should be essential reading whether you are an established fan of urban fantasy or someone who is wondering whether this kind of fiction is for you.

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