As you may recall, one of the Southern Discomfort rejections I got last year recommended reading more urban fantasy (I’m also applying the lessons to Impossible Takes a Little Longer). So here’s my latest attempts, CROSSROADS OF BONES: A Katie Bishop Novel by Luanne Bennett (cover by Deranged Doctor Design).
Katie is a recent transplant to Savannah, GA, from NYC, a tattoo artist running a studio with two employees, Sea Bass and Mouse. She’s also half-dragon, a heritage that normally manifests as a spectacular back tattoo. If she’s aroused, endangered or stressed, however, her inner dragon wants to come out and play.
The plot kickoff is a creepy customer who demands a very precise tattoo. It turns out he’s a demon-god or rather one half of a demon-god imprisoned by the local magical council. Somehow part of him got out and the tattoo helps him manifest. If he can get his other half out, he’ll be unstoppable. The council figures that he’ll inevitably come to Katie, and that as the one responsible for releasing him she has an obligation to help put the demon back in the bottle.
I enjoyed this one, certainly more than the last urban fantasy I studied. It’s a pleasant read with some cute touches such a tribe of shifters who become inanimate objects. The biggest weakness is that much like the previous book, the suspense and looming threat stops dead when Katie goes on a date with the male lead — suddenly they have the time for a lovely romantic idyll. It doesn’t help that I didn’t buy Katie’s instant attraction to the guy at all. He seemed like such an obnoxious jerk I assumed her sudden lust indicated he was an incubus or something. I concede that’s partly personal taste — I hate arrogant jerk alpha-male romantic leads — but not entirely.
The second biggest problem is that Katie is too passive a protagonist. She doesn’t act on her own initiative most of the time, she’s pushed into it by someone else — the council, the demon, her boyfriend. And her dragon side plays much less of a role than I expected, which is a little unsatisfying.
So what did I learn? Like most of the other UF I’ve been reading since the feedback, there’s a lot of emphasis on community. Katie’s friends and employees play a large role in the story even if they’re not on the front line; her boyfriend and the members of the mages’ council do too. This seems to be the norm for UF; even loners actually have a large supporting cast. That’s a plus for Impossible — KC’s friends and community are a big part of the story — but maybe not for Southern Discomfort. There’s a community but Maria, my protagonist, isn’t part of it. She does make a friend but the community doesn’t open its heart to her, nor vice versa.
Maria is also pushed around a lot, but I think she pushes back and tries to assert herself more than Katie, even if it’s only by running away. In some ways Joan would make a more typical lead: she’s part of the Pharisee community and she’s determined to fight, but I still prefer Maria. And because I use multiple POVs, neither one will work as a first-person narrator, which seems to be the UF norm.
There’s also enough exposition here to make me wonder if I overreacted keeping it trimmed down in Southern Discomfort. There’s a more in Impossible, but hopefully both interesting enough and not done to excess that it won’t turn the readers off. I will say that despite Bennett pulling the old “my character is new to this milieu so that excuses lots of exposition” I didn’t find myself turned off as I often do.
Another thing that struck me is that, even aside from the romantic break, the pace here is relatively leisurely. I don’t mean that as a criticism but one of the comments on Southern Discomfort was that the pace was too laid back — urban fantasy requires more urgency and tension. While there is plenty of urgency and tension, there’s still a lot of that epic fantasy introduce-us-to-the-world leisure; if Harry Dresden is a hardboiled PI, Katie Bishop’s more a cozy protagonist. Which isn’t a criticism, just a difference. I’m sure there’s an insight I can gain for improving Southern Discomfort but I’m not sure what it is yet.
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