Archive of ‘Featured Blend’ category

Introducing the Urban Fantasy Gazetteer

gazetteer map

Click through for an interactive map of contemporary fantasy by state at http://www.genrify.com/uf_gazetteer/

One of the pleasures of reading contemporary or urban fantasy, as opposed to epic fantasy, is the fact that it is set in our own world. The intersection of magic and the mundane can be hugely appealing. If a novel is set in an imaginary land, you know to expect magical things on the page. But crack open an urban fantasy set in Chicago or Atlanta and you don’t know what to expect. Wizards? Werewolves? Vampires? Dragons in disguise? Maybe some or all of these, maybe something even more unexpected. There is always a bit of narrative distance when you place a story in a fictional land. While the reader can bond with any well-written character, it take a little more effort to put yourself in the shoes of an epic fantasy character, whether they be pig-farming peasants or high-born nobles. On the other hand, urban fantasy characters inhabit lives and landscapes that resemble our own — they own houses or rent apartments, they eat at restaurants, hold down jobs, and walk city streets.

When you are reading any kind of book set in the real world, it is especially fun to read one set in your own hometown. If the author has done his or her job well, you can walk the same streets and see the same sights in books that you see when you walk to work. Maybe the characters eat at your favorite deli or BBQ joint, hang out in the park down the street, or work in an office building you’ve walked past a million times. They talk like you, and drink that weird soda that no one else drinks (what the hell is cheerwine, anyway?). And every time you have that moment of “hey! I know that place!” it can bond you to the story, as long as the author gets it right (I haven’t read all of these, so forgive me if they don’t, in fact, get it right). Readers who live in big cities like Chicago or San Francisco get this treat all the time, but I’ve searched for urban fantasy set in every state.  I got close, with only a couple of voids. I didn’t do any international urban fantasies (I’ll do those in a future post), no YA,  and I didn’t include any historical fantasies, despite there being quite a few great ones set in cities like Chicago, LA, and SF. I did, however, dip into paranormal romance and supernatural mysteries when I needed something for a state. The image of a map at the top of the post takes you to an interactive map showing my pick for the urban fantasy that best represents each state (or sometimes just my favorite, if there were many to choose from).  Because some places like New York has had a lot of books set on its streets, I’ll list some of the other novels set in the state in the full gazetteer below.

Urban Fantasy by Setting

ALABAMA

ALASKA

ARIZONAhounded

ARKANSAS

CALIFORNIA

rosemaryandrueSan Francisco

Los Angelessandmanslim

Other

COLORADO

Denverkittyandthemidnight

CONNECTICUT

DELAWARE

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIAskindeep

FLORIDA

GEORGIAmagicbites

Altanta

HAWAII

[How is it possible there isn’t an urban fantasy set in Hawaii? I would read the hell out of that.]

IDAHO

ILLINOISstormfront

Chicago

INDIANA

IOWAhiddenthings

KANSAS

KENTUCKY

LOUISIANAdeaduntildark

New Orleans

MAINE

MARYLAND

MASSACHUSETTS

Bostonkissbeforeapoc

MICHIGAN

MINNESOTAwarfortheoaks

MISSISSIPPI

MISSOURIguiltypleasures

MONTANA

NEBRASKA

NEVADAlastcall

NEW HAMPSHIRE

NEW JERSEY

NEW MEXICO

NEW YORK

New York Cityalreadydead

NORTH CAROLINA

NORTH DAKOTA

OHIOdeadwitchwalking

OKLAHOMA

 

OREGONmagictothebone

PENNSYLVANIA

RHODE ISLAND

SOUTH CAROLINArestorer

SOUTH DAKOTA

TENNESSEE

TEXASburningwater

UTAH

VERMONT

VIRGINIA

WASHINGTONmooncalled

Seattle

WEST VIRGINIA

WISCONSINdaring

WYOMING

 

Psychics in Science Fiction

Usually when people think of science fiction, it is a rule-based setting. Near future, far future, alternate past –  the “what if” of a good science fiction novel usually sticks with what could be, if things develop according to the way society is trending and the rules of science allow. But what then do you do with science fiction that adds in something fantastical? For my purposes you get a Science Fiction/Fantasy blend.

Psychic powers are one of the most common fantasy elements that get added to what can otherwise be straightforward science fiction.  There is no scientific basis (at this time!) for psychic powers. No proof that they exist or could exist, or would exist if the conditions were right.  But they are irresistible to authors in many genres. Some even bother to walk through scientific example of why the powers manifest.  But really, they’re just cool. The great thing about genre blends is that authors feel free to borrow whatever cool bits they like from other genres. It’s a big part of why I like blends. So with no further ado, here are some great examples of SF with psychic powers

 

foundationFoundation series by Isaac Asimov

Start with: Foundation

Asimov’s classic series is the story of a galactic empire in decline. Hari Sheldon is the inventor of psychohistory, the ability to see the future through the use of history, psychology and statistics. He foresees the end of society and brings together humanity’s greatest thinkers to create a safe hold, a foundation at the edge of the galaxy. But that’s not even the psychic part!  There is a character of Mule, whose ability to control others through their emotions makes him a dangerous man, and a threat to Hari’s plans.  There’s some other psychic stuff running through the series, but none of this makes it any less of a classic of the science fiction genre.

bloodysunDarkover series by Marian Zimmer Bradley

Start with: The Bloody Sun

People have been arguing about the Darkover series since it was first published.  SF or fantasy? There are also quite a few arguments over whether it is worth reading.  The quality of the series is really, really all over the place. I loved the books as a teen but see their flaws quite clearly as an adult.  But somehow I have fond feelings for them, and their cray-cray sf/fantasy weirdness. On the one hand, some of the volumes have a completely fantasy feel, with a feudal society where the aristocracy have psychic powers. Best examples for those books are HawkMistress! or StormQueen! (or as I think of them – the exclamation point books!). But The Bloody Sun is a better example of the books that deal with this feudal, psychic society’s clash with earth, which has a much more SF feel. MZB gives a semi-scientific example for her psychic powers in these later volumes.

dunesmDune series by James Herbert

Start with: Dune

Hmm… how to talk about the psychic woo-woo stuff in Dune without giving too much away? I fully admit to bouncing off Dune hard when I first tried to read it, as it starts with a very dry explanation of galactic politics. But once you get on the planet of Dune, and our young hero Paul starts to take his place in destiny, it starts to really work. In the series, one of the galaxy’s master manipulators is a group known as the Bene Gesserit. Through a combo of long-game genetic manipulation and the use of the mysterious Spice, found only on Arrakis, they have developed a whole range of psychic powers, especially telepathy and precognition. Oh, and the basis of interstellar travel has a psychic element as well, as the navigators use Spice to put themselves into a weird state that allows faster-than-light travel.

manycoloredlandSaga of the Pliocene Exile by Julian May

Start with: The Many-Colored Land

In the Pliocene Exile books, a man from the future (just looked it up 2034 – not too future now!) discovers a portal to the past of six million years ago. Ever since, certain disaffected mavericks have made the one-way journey to the presumed peaceful and idyllic era. The first book follows a group that make the trip from 2110 to the Pliocene, only to find two warring humanoid but alien races already living there. Both races have paranormal powers, and the humans find themselves drawn into the conflict between them. The psychic powers are not alien-specific, though. As you read the whole series the set-up is that humanity, as a species, has been developing ESP powers as well. Some of the exiles who chose to jump to the past do so because they feel out of step with the new galactic mind.  It’s been decades since I read these books, but I really enjoyed them.

demolishedman starsmydestinationThe Demolished Man  and

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man is a classic of the SF genre. Everyone in the future society written about here has psychic powers – it’s just a matter of how much. The story revolves around a man who is determined to kill a business rival, but how do you commit murder in a society of telepaths? This clever SF/Mystery blend won the Hugo in 1953, and has some obvious noir influences. Bester also dabbled in psychic powers for his novel The Stars My Destination (a book that inspired the name of the SFF bookstore I spent many a happy hour in when I lived in Chicago in the late 1980s and 1990s, The Stars Our Destination). That novel hinges on personal teleportation, a skill that is apparently psychically controlled. Both novels feel like SF (Stars is often cited as a precursor to cyberpunk), while skillfully borrowing the fantastical element of psychic abilities,

rowanThe Tower and Hive series by Anne McCaffrey

Start with: The Rowan

Loosely connected to each other and to other McCaffrey books, this first novel in the Tower and Hive series sets up the premise of a future human society where certain individuals with psychic abilities are known as Talents. Rowan survived an alien attack that destroyed her planet and family when she was a young child. She grew up to be a major Talent, known as a “prime”, and worked for the Federal Telepath & Teleport network, which controls all communication and shipping in the galaxy. Her talents set her apart and leave her lonely, until she hears the distant psychic call of fellow-talent Jeff Raven from across space. The two fall and love and fight aliens together. Like you do.

 

soldiersdutyTheirs Not to Reason Why series by Jean Johnson

Start with: A Soldier’s Duty

While most of the books on this list are pretty old (I read most as a teen and I am also old), this is a relatively new series, and one that also blends sf and romance, which is a blend of which I am particularly fond.  I just started reading it, so I’ll crib from the publisher blurb. “Ia is a precog, tormented by visions of the future where her home galaxy has been devastated. To prevent this vision from coming true, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military with a plan to become a soldier who will inspire generations for the next three hundred years-a soldier history will call Bloody Mary.”  As I said, I’m reading this one now, but I loved how Ia sees the future, or should I say the many possible futures, sifting through them to try to get the one she needs, the one that doesn’t end in the death of everyone and everything she loves.

What to read after watching The Expanse

expanseLast night was the official Syfy network premiere of the new space opera tv series The Expanse, although some folks watched the show online when it went up a couple of weeks ago. Tonight will be episode two, setting the hook even deeper to get viewers sucked into this new series that promises to bring the network back to its science fiction roots. So far, it’s a stylish adaptation, with some nice acting and great scenery. I can’t wait to see how it develops as the season goes on and how faithful it remains to its source material. I promise not to spoil anything for those who haven’t watched yet!

 

leviathanwakesThis season of The Expanse is based on the first book of James S.A. Corey’s series, Leviathan Wakes.  In this novel, humanity has spread throughout the solar system, but no further. Divisions in human society have developed between the major outposts of Earth, Mars and the outer planets, with mutual distrust between all factions. It’s a canny choice, keeping the action close to our planetary home and the actors human. It makes the series more accessible to readers (and now viewers) who are not necessarily long-time SF fans. The other clever thing the authors (Corey is a pseudonym for two sf writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) have done to bring in a wide readership is to have the first volume adopt some of the trappings of another popular genre, the mystery. There is a missing person case, a hangdog cop and plenty of noir atmosphere.

If you have been loving the show so far or are a fan of the books that the show is based on, I have some suggestions of books to read.

The book (and presumably series) has two main points of view, that of Jim Holden and focused on him and his crew, and a second point of view with noir-tinged belter cop Miller. If you like the shipboard bits with Holden and how his crew work together, here are some books to try:

OnBasiliskStationHonor Harrington series by David Weber, beginning with On Basilisk Station

This long-running space opera series is centered on Royal Manticore Naval office Honor Harrington. Much of the focus is on shipboard life and crew dynamics, which should appeal to fans of The Expanse. In this first volume, Honor has been set up to fail by a superior who hates her and sent to a backwater system. But things are more exciting than she anticipated.  This series is very much for fans of C.S. Forster and Patrick O’Brian, but in space. It doesn’t have the tight focus on our solar system and there are aliens, so probably more for the SF fans.

fortunespawn-coverParadox series by Rachel Bach, beginning with Fortune’s Pawn

A huge part of the appeal of this series is lead character Devi Morris, a mercenary who has a strangely intimate relationship with her weapons, a love ’em and leave ’em attitude towards relationships, and a burning ambition. Sounds like a dude, right? But she’s a kick ass female soldier.  She takes a position on a ship called The Glorious Fool because she was told a year on board would give her enough of a reputation that she would be a shoe-in to win a place amongst the king’s guard known as Devastators.  But the ship is even more dangerous than she thought.  There’s plenty of action, danger, and space opera shenanigans, but also a big dash of romance. Hopefully that won’t keep away male readers, because this is grade ‘A’ SF.

retributionfallsTales of the Kitty Jay by Chris Wooding, beginning with Retribution Falls

Not space opera, but more of a steampunk-ish fantasy heist. BUT WAIT.  It has one of the most entertaining crews in SFF with the motley assemblage of misfits who keep the airship Kitty Jay in the air. While Frey, captain of the Kitty Jay,  is more of a ne’er-do-well than Holden, who always strives to do the right thing, the two crews share the camaraderie of those forced to live and work together in tight spaces, and yet have their own secrets to keep.  I wrote about this book in a review post, where I recommended it to fans of the TV series Firefly, another wonderful example of a crew to fall in love with.

More great space opera:

If you like the mixture of noir and SF, I have a whole different batch of recommendations for you.  I did a post with a flowchart of mystery/SF blends that you might want to check out, but here are just a few of my favorite science fiction mysteries set in space:

disappearedRetrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, beginning with The Disappeared

In this first book of the series, Miles Flint is a Retrieval Artist: a kind of cop tasked with hunting down humans who break alien laws. HIs conflict is that the alien laws are often draconian beyond all reason, so Miles will need to find a way to reconcile his job and his ideas of justice. It takes place on the moon and has a nice combo of sf ideas and mundane police routines. Rusch is not read as much as she should be.  In addition to this fabulous series she also has the Diving universe books, which also usually have a nice mystery element.

seekerAlex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt, starting with my favorite: Seeker

In the year 2688 a colony ship called Seeker left earth only to disappear.  Thousands of years later, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict finds a relic from the lost ship and decides to try to finally solve the mystery of what happened to Seeker.  But that’s not the only mystery Alex and his assistant Chase Kolpath will have to solve.  There’s nothing wrong with book one of the series, A Talent For War, but I think they all stand alone well and this (book 3) has a better mystery. These books are fun thriller/mysteries with enough interesting science fiction to satisfy both crowds.

alteredcarbonTakeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan, starting with Altered Carbon

In the 25th century, technology exists where people can download their consciousness into a new body or “sleeve”, essentially living forever. Centuries-old billionaire Laurens Bancroft brings U.N. Envoy Takeshi Kovacs to Earth, where Kovacs is sleeved in a cop’s body to investigate Bancroft’s murder. The wealthy man resleeved, of course, but his cortical stack was deliberately damaged and he wants Kovacs to find whoever tried to kill him permanently. Morgan explores the consequences of life where death can be cheated by anyone with enough money. Oh, and it is really violent and swear-y, just so you know.

Don’t forget that you can use the blender to find more science fiction/mystery mixes.

 

 

Great Reads for Fans of The Great British Baking Show

GBBOI know this isn’t particularly genre blendy, but I am currently grieving the end of the Great British Baking Show (aka in its native Britain as The Great British Bake Off or GBBO), which finished its run on PBS this weekend.  I usually hate reality TV. In America, it is usually about watching people acting badly, or hoping for people to embarass themselves, or trying to create drama where drama simply doesn’t exist. Even the cooking shows fall victim to this.  I’ve watched Top Chef and enjoyed it, but too much time is spent on personalities rather than food. So I had no particular desire to watch the Great British Baking Show, and in fact missed the first season aired here entirely. I don’t remember who convinced me to watch it this season (someone on Twitter, I’m guessing!), but after one episode I was completely smitten. This was a show about baking, and since it is from the UK it was often about baking things I have never even heard of like suet puddings and Victoria sponge (seriously, endless amounts of Victoria sponge). The bakers, while quite good a bit better than your average home baker, are still amateurs, and their creations often look more than a bit squiffy. We don’t get endless confessional interviews with the contestants (in fact you get virtually no info about their private lives except for a super short segment on each of the finalists). They just show up every weekend and bake. There is no big payday at the end (it seems they just get an engraved cake stand). And the biggest difference between this and every other reality show I’ve watched is that everyone is nice. Really nice. Now that it is over for another season, with no idea when they will air it again, I thought I would pull together a list of books for my fellow rabid fans of the show.  Bon Appetit!

Books for fans of The Great British Baking Show (aka The Great British Bake Off)

artofbakingblindThe Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan

This British novel is probably the closest we’re going to get to a novelization of The Great British Bake Off. It follows five amateur bakers who are competing to become the next “Mrs. Eaden”. In the 1960s, Kathleen Eaden, wife of a supermarket magnate, wrote a classic bestselling cookbook called the Art of Baking. Now she has died and the market chain wants to find a new baking mascot. If you love the show but wished they gave more backstory on the contestants, this book will scratch that itch. We learn about the five potential Mrs. Eadens and their personal struggles. We also get flashbacks to Kathleen Eaden’s story as she writes the cookbook that inspired the whole thing. There are plenty of tantalizing descriptions of baked goods, so you might want to have a snack handy while reading. It’s a charming, if not particularly memorable novel.

eatcakeEat Cake by Jeanne Ray

Ruth loves cake and bakes as a way to self-comfort and de-stress (I can relate!). When her husband loses her job, her daughter turns overnight into a bratty teenager, and both of her divorced parents move in with her, Ruth will need a lot of baking to deal with the stress. I love this novel. Like the author’s earlier Julie and Romeo, it is women’s fiction with depth and humor and a delightful, mature heroine. Ruth is beset on all sides, but she’s down-to-earth, warm, and funny. And she bakes like a dream! If I recall correctly, along with delectable descriptions of Ruth’s cakes, the author included recipes at the back.

breadaloneBread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Women’s fiction often follows a pattern wherein a woman experiences a trauma or emotional upheaval in her life and then searches for a way to reinvent herself (or usually find her most authentic self). In Bread Alone, Wynter Morrison (yeah, I hate the name, too, but she goes by Wyn) has moved to Seattle after her husband leaves her for another woman. At loose ends, she spend time in a local bakery cafe, which brings back memories of when she lived in Paris and wanted to be a professional baker. She is offered a job at the Seattle bakery and reconnects with her love of the process of making bread. This does has all the usual women’s fiction ingredients (change of scenery, wise best friend, fraught relationship with her mother, discovery of calling, new chance at love), but combined in a winning way. And yes, there are recipes for bread.

 

lovegoddessschoolofessentialThe School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister  

The Love Goddess’ Cooking School by Melissa Senate

These two novels get grouped together here (and in my head) because they share a structure and I read them about the same time.  Both involve a group of people attending a cooking school. They both break down into character studies of the students: what brought them to the school, the dramas and sorrows in their current lives, and works through how cooking and connecting with others helps them to a better place. In The School of Essential Ingredients, Lillian is a successful chef who hosts cooking classes at her restaurant. We get Lillian’s story alongside the story of her students, as each week they all tackle a new dish. In The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, the focus is more on the heroine. Holly Maguire returns home to Maine to take over her Sicilian grandmother’s cooking school. Trouble is she doesn’t know how to cook, much less does she have her grandmother’s secret to using food to tell fortunes. But she gamely dives in, and we get her story of reinvention alongside the stories of her first four students who also seek to change their lives.  Both of these novels are charming, light reads with mouth-watering descriptions of food.

Just about anything by Sarah Addison Allen

     
When I first fell in love with the books of Sarah Addison Allen, it was with her debut, Garden Spells.  It reminded me of a love child between Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat and from there I was hooked.  Her books have the beautiful characters and relationships of good women’s fiction, with just the right touch of magic. In Garden Spells, Claire Waverly has been living alone in her family home with its magical apple tree in the backyard. She has a catering business that uses the family talents to be able to cook foods that are exactly what people need. Her orderly routine is thrown when her sister Sydney returns with her daughter.  The Sugar Queen has less food, but more magic than Garden Spells. Josey lives in her mother’s house, sneaking romance novels and serious amounts of candy in her bedroom closet. One day she finds local waitress Della Lee hiding in that same closet, and her life is going to get the shaking up it needs. Back to more food again with The Girl Who Chased the Moon. Teen Emily Benedict returns to North Carolina after the death of her mom to find out about the her mother’s life. She moves in with her grandfather and meets Julia, a cake baker who was friend with her mother. Seriously, if you haven’t tried Allen and you like women’s fiction with a healthy dash of magic, give her a try.

There are plenty of other great foodie fiction books out there, and don’t even get me started on foodie movies! Hopefully these will partially satisfy the hunger of GBBO fans longing for more Victoria sponge.

Rural Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a hugely popular segment of the SF/F marketplace, but there have always been arguments about the name.  It seems like an effort to differentiate books set in OUR world with books set in a historically influenced imaginary world. Some have always insisted a more useful genre heading would be contemporary fantasy or first world fantasy (as opposed to epic fantasy aka second world fantasy).  I personally like the name urban fantasy, as it conjures up city streets and danger and familiar surroundings. There are dozens upon dozens of series where the moniker fits like a glove: Butcher’s Dresden Files or Chloe Neil’s Chicagoland Vampires set in Chicago, Harrison’s Hollows series set in Cincinnati, and Seanan McGuire’s San Francisco set October Daye books all have great urban settings.  I should really do a gazetteer post one of these days, actually. But what about books that have contemporary settings and real world landscapes but which are not urban?  There’s some really great ones out there. Small towns, rural hamlets, and middle-of-nowhere settings can have some pretty interesting drama, it seems. And the communities are often a lot more intimate and up-in-everybody’s-business, which can add an interesting element to the story. Here are just a few I love a lot: (more…)

Horror with Humor

Are you watching iZombie?  The new show about a girl infected with a zombie virus who works in a morgue and solves crime? On the CW on Tuesday nights?  Well you should be.  It’s one of the most promsiing combinations of witty, banter-y humor and horror that I’ve seen in a while.

It also made me realize that while I’m a fan of horror in general I really love horror that knows how to laugh at itself.  Because I’m more sensitive to visual scares than written ones, I actually refused to watch any horror movies until Evil Dead came along. There’s something so cathartic about laughing in the middle of something terrifying. While there are a lot of horror (novels and films both) with moments of unexpected humor, I’m talking here about laugh-out-loud funny stuff, rather than the dark-as-night black humor of something like Bret Easton Ellis.  Some of my favorites are genuinely scary horror with comic relief, some are more comedies that adopt horror scenery, but they all combine that desire to bring you to an uncomfortable place through a scary or gross set-up and then make you laugh. This kind of push-pull of maintaining tension and then releasing it through humor is actually incredibly impressive, so if you like to laugh-scream, here are some picks for you. (more…)

Planetary Romance

Some of my earliest and longest-lasting love affairs in SFF is the subgenre of planetary romance. It seems strangely old-fashion now, but when I first started reading science fiction, these were the books I read, loved and wallowed in. So what is a planetary romance? Contrary to what you might think, it is not actually a blend between romance and science fiction (although it can be that too).  If anything, it’s more of a blend between science fiction and fantasy.   (more…)

Historical Policing

I’ve always been a fan of historical mysteries, but a couple of years ago i read a couple of really great books set at the dawn of “official” policing (Gods of Gotham, about the founding of the NYPD and The Yard about the first “murder squad” at Scotland Yard) and wondered if there was more out there.  They appealed to me because in general I like the structure imposed by a police procedural. (more…)

Featured Blend: Time Travel Romance

Outlander 2014

Time traveler love with seriously smokin’ chemistry. Swoon!

A little late for Valentine’s Day and a little early for the return of the TV series Outlander (although maybe you are, like me, re-watching the first half of season 1 to get prepped!) I have been in the mood to do a romance post about time travel romances and other romances that play with multiple time periods. The reason I think these can be fabulous genre blends is that they can give the reader a hugely satisfying historical fiction experience — gorgeous details of the dress, food, and social norms of the past — but still give us a touchstone character from the present to ground the story. (more…)

Fantasy Cops

Urban Fantasy is a genre full of crime.  Not every urban fantasy contains a mystery component, but many, MANY do. When you set your fantasy on regular city streets and remove the epic worldbuilding and plots of large-scale political intrigue and clashing armies (think Tolkien, Martin, etc.) you need something to fill that plot hole.  A mystery plot, with its reliable structure of crime, investigation, and resolution is amazingly suited to a blend with fantasy. It is also a plot that lends itself to episodic series, with gradually accumulated world-building allowed to be used over and over again with the same characters, only changing the particular mystery plot du jour. (more…)

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