The Shambling Guide to New York City begins with aspiring editor Zoe moving from Raleigh to New York to rebuild her life after a pretty disastrous ending of job and relationship, and stumbling into a new job writing a supernatural travel guide. Because that’s the kind of job you can only have in New York.
I’m a great fan of urban supernatural novels, Good ones blend the real weirdness and true history of the city with convincing supernaturals. I’m not a huge fan of the almost-obligatory werewolf makeouts, though. (Once in college, my roommate lent me a Laurel K. Hamilton vampire/werewolf porno, on the totally logical premise that I enjoy both supernatural fiction and bodice rippers, and I have still not recovered from it.)
In New York, Zoe joins a team of assorted supernaturals working on a coterie travel guide, in a disused theater. Her new staff includes vampires (hungry for human blood), zombies (hungry for human brains), an incubus (hungry for Something Else), a baby dragon (only 200 years old, aww!), a death goddess (who can see Zoe’s lifespan), and a water sprite (who does not want to eat Zoe at all).
Some humans work for the city’s Public Works, keeping an eye on the supernatural residents, although most humans don’t really recognize coterie things, thanks to a combination of the supernatural glamour and the humans constantly rushing in Manhattan.
Over the course of the novel, Zoe discovers that she’s a citytalker, not just an everyday human with a knack for being the right place at the right time. Citytalkers (which I mentally replaced with Urbvocatrix or Polislallia, because classics) can communicate with the spirit of city they’re in, meeting the city’s real personality.
Even though Zoe was born a citytalker, the spirit of Raleigh never spoke to her while she lived there. This is because the city of Raleigh probably only points out how much cheaper a cul-de-sac McMansion is in North Carolina than up north. While Manhattan has secrets and excitement, history and factions, the city of Raleigh probably only speaks to members of the homeowner’s association.
Well, actually, the second book explains that there’s another reason why Zoe only hears New York (although I think my rationale makes perfect sense).
Zoe’s supernatural and editorial adventures continue in Ghost Train to New Orleans, as she, along with her mostly-human Public Works boyfriend and some of her coterie travel-writing team head to New Orleans for their second travel guide. The snarky supernaturals, the coterie hidden in plain sight, and other things enjoyed in the first novel were all here. I realized in reading Ghost Train that a lot of what I’d loved in The Shambling Guide was the blend of supernatural weird and average-day-in-New-York weird. Ghost Train did the same for New Orleans, or at least, what I imagine New Orleans to be.
As the story unfolds, we learn more about Zoe’s background and about coterie history. Dramatic moments managed to be creepy without being gross, which is a hard line for dark supernatural fiction to find.
Unfortunately, having so many kinds of superpowered coterie makes it a little hard to keep track. So a citytalker when possessed by a ghost does what to a zoetist now? What do demons eat again? If a zombie got in a fight with a golem, who would win?
After a while, it seemed that every single character knew more about the supernatural world than Zoe and none of them could be bothered to explain in full, resulting in an endless series of revelations that need to be kept secret from everyone who wasn’t in on the revelations. This became a bit frustrating, because what I knew about the novel’s world was constantly changing, but in many ways it felt like a setup for the next book.
I preferred Shambling Guide to Ghost Train, but I’m still excited to read the third novel to see how it all comes together for Zoe.