Book blurb: Urban Fantasy – Patricia Briggs

The “urban fantasy” genre (or “paranormal”, “supernatural” et al) is really big these days.  The vile Twilight series is getting all the credit for the rise in popularity of books about vamps, werewolves, fae or faerie, witches and various other ghosties and beasties.  This pisses me off enormously because hellooo?  Buffy???  Anne Rice novels?  And the hundreds of other books to be found in the SF&F shelves that were deemed too nerdy for the general adult / young adult populace?  Now it’s “cool”.  And hey it’s all down to a series that is misogynist, anti-feminist (or anti any non-passive-female;  the only strong female characters are Evil), abstinence-only and MORMON.  BLECCHHHH!

I’ve always loved the fantasy genre (oh I like SF too, except for the really heavy-duty military-space-opera stuff) starting with Lord Of The Rings at nine years old, and moving on from there.  It’s true a lot of fantasy is, well, bilge, and poorly-written bilge at that.  The same-old, same-old heroes, stupid names, dragons and swords and beautiful useless heroines.

Some fantasy is pretty damn wonderful though.  Terry Pratchett is one of my absolute favourite authors, over all genres, not merely the SF&F category.  Personally I think his books should be on the same shelves as the posh Booker-Prize-winning Literature, he’s so good; besides he got an OBE for Services To Literature so the Queen (or some lackey) obviously agrees with me!  For an incorrigible bookophile (technically it’s “bibliophile” but I don’t want to bring the so-called Good Book into this), even one who is a compulsive list-maker, such a thing as “Absolute Favourite Authors” is difficult to quantify.

Also on that list you would find Robin McKinley, and a new favourite, Patricia Briggs.  Robin McKinley has written such gems as Beauty (A Re-Telling of Beauty and the Beast), The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End and the more recent Sunshine and Dragonhaven.  And yes, while they do feature dragons, magic, vampires and swords, McKinley creates amazing worlds, and wonderfully complex, believable characters.  I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read my collection of McKinleys (I have them all) and each time the experience is fresh, beautiful and exciting.

Patricia Briggs is a new discovery, although her first book was published in 1993 (no longer in print, damn), and her best-selling series’ heroine Mercy Thompson made her first appearance in 2006.  The Mercy Thompson series and Briggs’ contributions to various anthologies gave rise to a spin-off, the Alpha & Omega Series.

* * * * * * * * * * 

The Mercy Thompson series is set in our world, except that werewolves, vampires, fae, witches and ghosties really do exist.  Patricia Briggs has built a totally convincing world where suburban life co-exists with fantastical creatures.  The heroine, Mercedes Athena Thompson (to give her full name) is a VW mechanic, and a “walker”.  The walker, or skin-walker, is based on actual Native American mythology, a magically-inclined person that can take on the shape of any creature by wearing it’s skin. 

Whilst Mercy is magically inclined, she doesn’t require the skin of an animal, or any magic requiring blood and death, to change. She is able to change instantly, at will, into a coyote (ie, not driven by the moon like werewolves).  Her main issues lie in trying to balance her different “selves” and attempting to live a normal life;  all somewhat complicated by the fact that the Alpha of the local werewolf pack lives next door (and wolves hate coyotes in their territory), and she has strong links to the local vamps and fae.

In Mercy’s first outing, Moon Called, she is reluctantly drawn into helping her neighbour Adam – the Alpha werewolf – and hunting down his and his (human) daughter’s kidnappers, and the person who has been experimenting on werewolves.  Mercy had spent the previous six or seven years trying to keep out of the wolves’ way;  it turns out she was brought up by werewolves, left that pack and resolved never to get involved with wolves again.  Now here she is, helping Adam – a possible romantic interest (well, there sure is lots of zingy chemistry there!) and Samuel, a very, very old werewolf who just happens to be her ex-childhood sweetheart.

In Blood Bound, set a couple of months after Moon Called, we are given a closer look at the vampires, of whom we saw a little in the previous book.  Mercy owes a favour to her friend Stefan, a vamp who is a bit of a fan of Scooby-Doo, and once again she is pulled into major trouble and strife.  She is helped by her werewolf and fae friends, knowing that she will have to return the favour at some stage.

Book no. 3 is Iron Kissed, and as Moon Called featured the werewolves as the major players, and Blood Bound revolved around vamps, Iron Kissed gives us more insight into the fae.  The action occurs over about a week or two so it’s all pretty fast-paced and driven.  The fae are powerful magical beings – not pretty sparkly fairies – and not given to friendly actions.  Mercy’s ex-boss, who happens to be one of the fae, asks for her help in investigating deaths within the fae community (using her coyote nose), and is himself  later accused of murder.  Mercy gets more than even she bargained for when she insists on finding out who the real killer is . . .

The previous books were dark, and had their fair share of violence and hardship, but Iron Kissed is even darker;  there are some pretty powerful scenes, violence and gore and rape.  There are plenty of lighter, more humorous moments too which create a good balance.  Briggs is never gratuitous in her depictions of violent acts and sex scenes – quite the opposite, she sets things up and allows the reader to fill in the blanks.  This is a really effective creative writing device but is not easy to follow through unless the tension and suspense are already there;  Briggs is a master at making her readers care deeply for her characters, whether major or minor.  One of the most powerful and touching scenes in the book involves a relatively unsympathetic minor character.   

Bone Crossed starts precisely where Iron Kissed left off, and ties up a lot of loose ends from the previous three in the series; so much so that fans of the series thought it was the last entry – “oh nooooooes!”.  Fortunately for us, Briggs has been signed to write at least three more Mercy Thompson books (no. 5 – Silver Borne – is already released in the US). 

In Bone Crossed Mercy makes headway in recovering from her ordeal in Iron Kissed, is caught up in the vampires’ backlash and revenge from Blood Bound, and finally chooses between the two men / werewolves who have been vying for her attentions.  There is also another plot involving a lone master vampire and ghosts which is pretty damn scary and ick (but awesome).

Briggs has also collaborated with Dabel Brothers Comics in producing a graphic novel.  Called Mercy Thompson:  Homecoming it is a prequel, depicting Mercy’s life before she became involved with the local werewolves and fae, and was trying to live a “normal” life and accept her own identity.

Overall, the series is well-written and fast-paced, the momentum never really slackens and the quiet interludes are as intense and vital to the plot and character development as the action.  Mercy herself does have a resemblance to Buffy, but while not a Capital S Superhero she does have a definite penchant for getting into trouble, solving mysteries / issues, and taking on the Bad Guys with the help of her preternatural friends – ie, werewolves, vamps and fae.

Despite the superhero-ness and toughness, she is still a believable character.  She’s complex, sympathetic, and very real in that she’s not perfect, she makes mistakes, has a complicated love-life.  Basically, she really wants a quiet, normal “human” life but her abilities as a walker and her links to the werewolf, vampire and fae communities make this impossible.

I enjoy the series enormously, and I’ve re-read each one a number of times.  As urban fantasy goes, this is light years ahead of Twilight Twi-shite et al.  What really sets the series apart is Briggs’ talent for world- and culture-building:  the cultures and hierarchy of the werewolf packs is absolutely riveting; Briggs has obviously done a lot of research into “real” wolf behaviour and pack structure, as well as human psychology.   The werewolves themselves, their behaviour and physiology – the Change, their immortality, how all that affects them – are quite different and unique to any weres I’ve encountered in other urban fantasy.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the anthology On the Prowl, Briggs used a secondary character who appeared very briefly in a couple of the Mercy Thompson books, and this bounced off into its own successful series:  Alpha & Omega.

First in the series is the novella Alpha & Omega, included in the aforementioned anthology, which introduces the reader to Charles and Anna.  Whereas the Mercy Thompson series tends to the action / mystery genre, A&O is more romantic – but never slushy!  Charles is the second most dominant werewolf in North America, above even Alphas of entire packs.  He is his father’s hit-man and enforcer, as well as his business manager, and these two sides to his character make for an interesting duality.

Anna is a young woman who has been Changed into a werewolf against her will, and has been beaten and abused into submission by the Alpha and others of her pack.  When she reads a newspaper article about the disappearance of a young man, who she saw in one of the safe cages at her Alpha’s house, she calls the Marrock, the Alpha of all Alphas.  The young man is one of the victims of the werewolf experiments in Moon Called, which dovetails nicely into that book, it’s consequences and the Mercy Thompson series.

Briggs has said that she did not intend Alpha & Omega to be a love story; it just grew that way.  Charles is an extremely dominant character and in direct contrast is the beaten, submissive Anna, who despite what she has been through remains a strong and unbroken personality.  The reasons for her treatment, and what she really is, is the centre of the story.  She is an Omega, which in Briggs’ world is a wolf capable of calming and controlling other werewolves, particularly when they are insane or raging out of control, a wolf outside of the pack hierarchy and not under the control of the Alpha*. 

*  In “real life” Omega wolves are the very bottom of the pack, with no special abilities.  They are usually utilised as a kind of uncle and babysitter to pups while the rest of the pack goes hunting.

Charles’ wolf half develops an immediate interest in Anna and her wolf, which is reciprocated.  Again, while Briggs doesn’t go for gratuitous sex scenes (in fact there is only one hug and kiss) the intensity of emotion between Charles and Anna is well-realised and draws the reader into their story and relationship.

Cry Wolf picks up where Alpha & Omega left off (this seems to be one of Briggs’ modus operandi), with Anna moving to Montana with Charles and adjusting to a very different life as a valued member of a new pack, with a mate.  In Briggs’ world, the “mating” of werewolves is the process whereby the wolf and human sides of each werewolf form a bond that can develop its own magic and abilities.

While there is plenty of action in Cry Wolf, with new werewolves, black witches and strange beings, the story revolves around Charles’ and Anna’s developing relationship.  While they are attracted to each other, and their wolf selves have bonded, they are still feeling each other out.  The added complication of Anna’s stress and trauma from the treatment she received in her old pack makes for a highly emotionally charged atmosphere. 

Book Numero Due, Hunting Ground, continues the story of Charles and Anna, their relationship and the deepening of their bond.  In Cry Wolf there wasn’t much talk between Charles and Anna – Charles being a reticent character anyway, and freaked out by his lack of control around Anna, and Anna suffering from PTSD.  In Hunting Ground there is a lot more talk between the pair, with insights into their characters, double-bond and strengths and weaknesses.  Together they make a really powerful combination.  Again, there is plenty of action with icky vamps and a new group of werewolf characters to contend with.

* * * * * * * * * *

To be honest, I find the characters in the A&O series to be a little more realistic and well rounded than those in the Mercy Thompson series.  Whether this is a matter of point of view – Mercy is written in first person while A&O is in omniscient voice – personally I find them a lot more sympathetic and easier to identify / empathise with. 

Also, Mercy is seemingly unstoppable, she is fairly black-and-white and highly moral in her thinking, and charges into things.  She never seems to eat or sleep!  She is a real kick-arse heroine (which I love! – don’t get me wrong) but not until Iron Kissed did I get a real sense of her insecurities and what makes her tick.  This does make the series very interesting, of course, watching her character development and growth – and that of other major and minor characters too.

So . . . if Twilight makes you want to puke with its passive heroine and abstinence-only message (not to mention the beautiful sparkly twinkly vampires, FFSL) but you still like the urban fantasy genre and want to read about werewolves and vampires and their “lives”, head for B for Patricia Briggs in your favourite Big Chain Book Store or indie SF&F book shop.  (Or do as I do and order off Book Depository – grrrrreat prices, an amazing selection of titles in all sections, and FREE international delivery!!!) (!!!)

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  • Tux  On Monday 12 April 2010 at 12:13 pm

    MMMM Maybe if we got the audio book of Twilight on cassette and left it in a car for a week or two….

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