When I received Those Who Fight Monsters, an anthology by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing and edited by one of the contributors, Justin Gustainis, my first impression was one of tentative excitement.
Urban fantasy has a special place in my heart, and the Occult Detective is perhaps the fundamental urban-fantasy archetype. An anthology of this kind is can serve two purposes: The first is to provide a taste of the genre to those that might otherwise be unfamiliar with it, and the second is to provide fans of the genre a chance to discover writers they may not have already come across.
Reading through the table of contents I saw a number of names I knew, though hadn’t read: T.A. Pratt, Carrie Vaughn, Tanya Hull, Jackie Kessler and Rachel Caine; and two that I had read, one of which already had a place on my bookshelf: Caitlin Kitteredge and Simon R. Green.
Equally interesting were the names that were not on the list. When I think of the Occult Detective, in contemporary fiction, I immediately think of Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher), Anita Blake (Laurell K. Hamilton) and Rachel Morgan (Kim Harrison). As a survey of the state of the genre, therefore, it falls down somewhat.
Each story in the collection focuses on a protagonist, ostensibly the “detective,” who stars in each author’s ongoing urban fantasy series. That said, the way the setting is painted in these stories is almost as important as the story itself. There are fourteen stories in total, not a single one of which was either bad or not enjoyable. Not all stories are written equal, however, and in this particular collection there were four stories that grabbed me from the opening sentence and dragged me through their twists and turns. The authors in this category have made my personal reading list.
Dusted – Laura Anne Gilman: This was an interesting story about a half-faun private investigator that was an interesting introduction to the Cosa Nostradamus series world, but didn’t really offer much beyond a quick character and setting study. The “mystery” wasn’t particularly mysterious or even very interesting, though the setting itself had some potentially interesting quirks.
Holding the Line – Lillith Saintcrow: This story was appealing primarily because it showcased a setting that has lost some popularity over the last decade or so. Rather than the “friendly” monsters or the monster-protagonist, in this story we have an old fashioned Hunter, a member of a country-wide fraternity of Hunters. It was entertaining enough, with a brief bit of investigation and plenty of violence.
See Me – Tanya Huff: Tanya, in this story, manages to take what could be just another pretty, lonely vampire story and turns it into something a little bit more than that. The vampire itself is interesting, since it seems to be the soul and life-force-eating type rather than a simple blood-drinker, but the core of the story is the interactions between the vampire (both before and after it is recognised for what it is) and one of the series main characters.
The big finale could have been trite but managed to avoid that due to the skill of the author; however, I didn’t really connect with this story. Part of that may have been the setting itself, which involves characters working on movies in L.A., which didn’t particularly appeal to me.
An Ace in the Hole – C. T. Adams & Cathy Clamp: As someone who reads a fair few of the paranormal police procedurals that have become fashionable in urban fantasy over the last decade, it was fair to say that there was little here that I hadn’t seen before. That said, the story itself was tight, the characters interesting and there were no serious missteps. This was a well-written, entertaining werewolf-investigator story, but unfortunately there was nothing in there for me that really lifted it above its contemporaries.
The Demon You Know – Julie Kenner: Of all the story settings, the premise of this one was the one most designed to make me go, “Huh?” To use the author’s name of the series, because I really cannot explain it any more succinctly than this, this story belongs to the “Demon Hunting Soccer Mom” series.
This particular story focuses on the daughter of said soccer mom who is in the early stages of training to be a demon hunter herself. A bit of standard teenage rebellion and foolery leads her and her friends to a party that turns out to be a front for some soul-sucking demon action. The demon itself was described well, very visceral and quite chilling, and the soccer mom manages to show up in time to kick ass, take names and save the day. It somehow manages not to take itself too seriously (I mean, demon hunting soccer mom?) whilst still delivering a story and setting that pulls no punches. Quite an achievement.
Little Better than a Beast – T.A. Pratt: This is a story of wizards defending a city against a beast thought killed centuries before. It started out much as any of a score of other urban fantasy novels and seemed destined to end up on the “satisfactory” list. The story hinted at some potentially interesting political structures behind the scenes, an alternative perhaps to the ever-present, all-knowing “council,” but this didn’t enter into the story so it is difficult to say.
The story was transformed, however, by the appearance not only of the beast, but of the man originally credited with killing it. This relic out of time is highly entertaining, full of bluster, arrogance and sexism, and it quickly becomes obvious that the focus of the story is not so much dealing with the beast, but with this “legend.” The story is worth reading for the ending alone, which absolutely drips with pleasant schadenfreude.
Impossible Love – C.J. Henderson: This story, by virtue of its core premise alone, was fighting an uphill battle with me. I have had something to do with the mentally disabled over the years and, through exposure alone, now tend to take a dim view of anything that trivialises the pain and suffering those families go through. The premise of this story was a single father who has spent years of his life nursing his daughter, who suffers from severe Downs Syndrome, and the revelation of one of his friends that his daughter’s condition is actually caused by a demon who latched on to her at birth. There are so many ways this could go horribly wrong and be horribly offensive that I was ready to bring the hammer down on this story right from the start.
I was surprised, therefore, to find that the story was quite sensitive and, more to the point, very realistic about the emotions and pain suffered by the caregiver in this case. The battle with the demon itself is rather poignant and the ending was done beautifully.
Running Wild – Rachel Caine: A story based on Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series, which appears to focus on a type of magic that is more elemental than most. The main character in this series is, interestingly, a djinn who has been stripped of much of her powers and reduced to a mortal form, and all the neurosis that comes with that. The story focuses on an encounter she has with a companion whilst exploring a mountain side. They come across a raw manifestation of elemental power that strips woman of their sanity and turns them into violent, drunken, sexual beasts who tear to pieces any male they come across.
The main character must resist the pull of the magic that seeks to draw her into its army of crazed followers and destroy an immortal force, whilst trying to protect her male companion from death at the hands of the crazed women—or herself.
I found the concept quite interesting and the writing tight, but I was unable to connect with the characters. Part of that is by design; it is difficult to empathise with a being that is by birth completely at odds with our own nature, but I found it made it difficult to enjoy the story as much as I otherwise may have.
Under the Hill and Far Away – Caitlin Kitteredge: Caitlin is an author that was already on my reading list prior to coming across this story, though I must say this is not representative of her best work. It was obviously meant to be a closed-room murder mystery in the fairy courts, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work, however as a pastiche of such it lacked much of both the charm and the cleverness that made those stories so successful. As an urban fantasy story, it was entertaining enough, but nothing special.
Soul Stains – Chris Marie Green: This was a somewhat sad and mournful tale; however it lacked punch and was ultimately rather forgettable. One of the more disappointing stories in the collection overall.
Hell Bound – Jackie Kessler: This particular story was excellent on several levels. First and foremost, it was told from the point of view of a succubus, a demon, and one who is not looking for redemption, trapped between conflicting desires or misunderstood. In a complete break with tradition, this is a demon who acts exactly like a demon, and does so very entertainingly.
Over the course of a simple but well-told story, we see the demon underestimate the mortal she is sent to tempt, get caught, but ultimately prevail much to the disgust of her superiors. No punches are held back, the subject matter is tackled without flinching, and all in all it was a fantastically-told story. I plan on looking further into this author’s series novels to see if they contain more of the same.
Deal Breaker – Justin Gustanis: The main character in this story, Quincey Morris, is a descendant of one of the men who faced down Dracula in Bram Stoker’s masterwork, and it has since gone on to be a family tradition to work against the forces of darkness in the world. In a modern twist on the Faustian bargain, Quincey is approached and asked for help by someone who made a deal with the dark forces—a deal that expires at midnight on this night.
Quincey’s method for dealing with this is a fascinating piece of philosophy and trickery that works its way around the contract and foils the bad guys. A great story.
The Spirit of the Thing – Simon R. Green: Simon R. Green is one of those annoying authors that I simply do not wish to like but can’t help myself. I first encountered him through one of his novels, recommended by a friend, and spent the first half sneering and rolling my eyes at the style and setting and the last half glued to the pages unable to put it down until I found out what happened next. Whatever else you can say about him, Simon is an idea machine capable of keeping up the suspense to keep you turning the pages.
He doesn’t disappoint with this story, another one of the jewels of the collection. In a detective story written with a Noir flair, we follow along an investigation into a crappy bar and a crappier bar owner, who is revealed to be more of a monster than any of the supernatural beings around the place. In a story that would never have a happy ending, we end with a bit of very satisfying vigilante justice by proxy meted out to the exploitative and murderous bar owner.
Defining Shadows – Carrie Vaughn: “Defining Shadows,” by Carrie Vaughn, was definitely the stand-out story in this collection for me. As I have stated earlier, I am very familiar with the typical paranormal police procedural story that are currently being produced in great numbers. This one was exception for several reasons.
The main character was not supernatural. She was not a witch, a werewolf, a mage, a vampire or a trained hunter. She is a cop with an open mind who has discovered there are more things on Heaven and Earth that are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio. This is refreshing and certainly adds an extra element of vulnerability to a character already in a vulnerable position.
Secondly, the monster itself was fascinating. A Filipino vampire with brutal and shocking habits and a truly unique physiology, the likes of which I have never encountered before. This by itself would be—and has been in the past—enough to get me excited when encountered in a novel, let alone a short story.
Finally, the story itself was brilliantly paced and written, from the investigation of the crime scene to the research to the final reveal. It was a morally ambiguous tale where not even the investigator herself was particularly happy with the result, let alone the reader, but we respect her even more for doing what she has to do. In my view, this story embodies all that is wonderful about the genre today.
And that’s all for this collection. It was well worth the read and I would recommend it wholeheartedly for any fan of the urban fantasy/occult detective genre; even more so if you are unfamiliar with the genre and would like a taste as to what it’s all about.