July 28, 2016
(+++) JAMMED SESSIONS
Urban Allies: Ten Brand-New Collaborative Stories. Edited by Joseph Nassise. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Well, now, this is just silly. But it is also a great deal of fun for those in the know – one of those books in which the in crowd has a great time and everyone else gets left out, wondering what the heck is going on and what all the fuss is about.
Urban Allies contains 10 stories by 20 authors in the “dark urban fantasy” genre, which basically means a lot of supernatural stuff, plenty of dramatic fighting and bleeding and conjuring, a fair amount of cursing, and action of all sorts. In each story, characters from two authors’ series are thrown together for a mutual adventure, or passing encounter, or cooperative collaboration, or something. Each story stands on its own and occurs within the universe of both its authors – even though not all the universes fit seamlessly together. For that matter, neither do all the characters: the machinations of getting them together tend to creak almost audibly, and their respective powers and abilities do not always mesh very well with each other.
Nevertheless, this is a lot of fun for readers familiar with the authors and their worlds. In fact, even when the stories are dark to the point of being dismal, there is an undercurrent of fun, in much the same way that the jam sessions in jazz are enjoyable even if the music being made is distinctly on the bluesy side. Or, perhaps a better example, there are the visual “jam sessions” used by many underground cartoonists in the 1960s and 1970s, in which one would draw his or her character in some setting and another would add his or hers to the same setting or expand the visual canvas to somewhere else, and then yet another would come in with yet another character to be superimposed on the first one or two, and everything would become messy and sometimes incoherent – but a great deal of fun for anybody interested in picking apart the art and determining just who did what where.
That is the sort of pleasure to be had in Urban Allies – not guessing which author wrote what (that is usually clear, and is completely obvious in the tales here that are told from alternating points of view), but enjoying the twists and turns of each short story while picking up on the known powers and characteristics of each tale’s protagonists. However, it is crucial to know who the characters are and what worlds they inhabit for these stories to make sense. When Verity Price from Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series encounters Elena Michaels from Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld while both are investigating a very minor mystery in the woods in a story called Tailed, the enjoyment is not so much in the thin plot as in the differing ways known characters respond to events. To repeat, known characters: anyone who does not know them will not get it. Likewise, when C.E. Murphy’s Joanne Walker encounters Kat Richardson’s Harper Blaine at a haunted house in Spite House, what is primarily interesting and enjoyable is the character interaction, not the events. Caitlin Kittredge’s Ava the hellhound and Jaye Wells’ Sabina, who helpfully explains that she is “the Chosen of the Dark Races,” along with their respective partners and hangers-on, track a necromancer in New Orleans in Ladies’ Fight, but it is the Ava-Sabina interaction that is the main interest in what is otherwise a very clunky tale. In fact, most of the stories here are clunky: the reasons the characters get together are usually strained, the way they work together is usually strained, and the forces they face are more faceless than bad guys usually are in urban fantasy – and generally have strained reasons for doing whatever bad things they happen to be doing. There is some gore here and some humor as well, sometimes coexisting uneasily, and the blending of the authors’ styles is, well, usually strained. This is essentially a 410-page fanzine, a compilation of characters and authors thrown together to celebrate many of the dark worlds of urban fantasy – enjoyable for those who already know the writers and the worlds and characters they have thought up, but impenetrable (and, yes, simply silly) for readers who come to the book without prior knowledge of the whos and whats behind it.