Unshapely Things - Mark Del Franco

~~Moved from GR~~

Unshapely Things

by Mark Del Franco

 

Connor Grey was once an incredibly powerful druid, but a work incident left him magically crippled, unable to perform the spells that gave him such high status in the fey world. Now living in Boston and working as a police consultant, Connor is trying to form a new life while fighting his bitterness against the fey guild and his once-inferiors. When a serial killer begins targeting fairy prostitutes, Connor is on the case--and soon embroiled in the fey politics he tried so hard to avoid.

I tend to split urban fantasy (UF) into two genres: MUFs (Male Urban Fantasy, or Male Urban Fantasy-Noir, but that's getting too silly, even for me--yes, I know quite a few MUFN men, but so far, none of them live on Drury Lane.), FLUF-PNR (Female Urban Fantasy-Paranormal Romance). I know it's a sexist split, but I really think they're different subgenres.[1]


Unshapely Things shares most of its similarities with MUFs, but also contains several FlUF characteristics. Like Harry Dresden, Alex Verus, and countless other MUFs, Connor is a magical professional living on a shoestring budget and on the outs with his organization. Like Dresden, Connor's use of magic also feels practical and mechanistic: given that he doesn't even pay lip service to religious or environmental viewpoints a la Atticus O'Sullivan, it seems that either (a) Connor is following an RPG characterization, or (b) he is a druid only because "wizard" was already prominently taken. Like Dresden, Connor is friends with a junkfood-eating "flit"(pixie), and is partnered with a suspicious and practical "muggle" cop, although in Connor's case, his policeman friend is male. Connor does end up partnering with a Plucky Girl Friday sidekick, but the total dearth of Damsels in Distress was downright delightful.

The world itself is rich in Celtic mythology and shares more characteristics with FLUFs than MUFs. At some point in the past, the hidden world of the fey collided with earth in an event called "The Convergence," and now the uneasy truce between humans and fey is policed by local guilds. While this idea is full of potential, I felt that Del Franco fell into the standard "parallel world plausibility trap": he makes massive changes to the world's distant history, yet assumes that almost all of the minutiae of life remain the same. Since the Convergence occurred at least 50 years before the story takes place, and likely much longer, why should he assume that technology like computers, cars, telephones, and planes, and companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, Microsoft, and more would develop identically to our reality? As I firmly believe magic would have warped technological inventions, it made the worldbuilding feel a little shallow to me. There is one exception--Del Franco does insert quite a few interesting human-fey political tensions he inserts, and they go a long way to adding depth to his world. However, even assuming that you can magically (heh) insert fairies to our past history and still have all of popular culture emerge identically, there are still inconsistencies: Connor indicates that the fey were "out" at least before WWII, but the political issues felt to me like the clashes that would occur when two cultures were only recently merged. The infodumps in the book didn't cover most of these topics, and I am extremely curious about the politics of Connor's world. One excellent aspect of the limited information provided is that it leaves the field very open for Del Franco to perform some strategic retcons to explain these contradictions.

One reason for my criticality was my difficulty in warming to Connor. I really appreciate Del Franco's creation of a protagonist who is both flawed and disabled, but personally, I found Connor arrogant and egotistical. Considering he claims to be severely humbled by his disability, I can't even imagine what he was like before his accident. For example, Connor is offended when one of his friends, reeling from the death of a lover, doesn't follow perfect etiquette, and wants to punish him for it despite the protests of the injured party. Connor also directly leads an acquaintance into a situation that leads to his death, but only succumbs briefly to guilt before renouncing responsibility for something I consider to be almost entirely his fault.

[I am, of course, talking about the death of Robin after he agrees to be bait for the killer. You can't just pretend that, after using a person to set a trap, when the trap springs a little later than you wanted, it's no longer your problem.]

(show spoiler)

Like Dresden, Connor is on the outs with the magical guild, but in his case, it's not because of a practical reason such as the organization's repeated attempts to lop off his head; instead, Connor's sulky resentment appears to be due entirely to his own fall from grace. Even Connor's reason for continuing the case rubs me the wrong way: because of his egoistical viewpoint, he makes the case entirely about himself. He continues to work because the killer has wounded his pride, not because of a desire to get justice or remediate the damage he has done. Although all this went to make Connor significantly less endearing, I think it's a great idea to create an extremely flawed protagonist, as it gives him a lot of room to grow in future books.

The mystery itself draws strongly from the hard-boiled tradition, which I enjoyed. However, the style is not that of a noir pastiche: the sentences almost uniformly follow a simple [noun][verb][object] structure, or sometimes just [verb][object] (gah), with instant repetitions of [object], to such an extent that I began to notice and be irritated by it. To be fair, it's actually really similar to Dashiell Hammett's style, so if you like Thin Man-style prose, this may be a very good fit.

 

I also think the author did a great job creating interesting and likeable side characters. I especially enjoyed the appearances of the touchy chain-smoking misanthropic techie druid, Meryl. Connor's large social circle means he lacks the isolation that many noir protagonists experience and goes far in lightening the tone and mood of the book. Possibly due to the book's short length, Connor doesn't interact with most of the side characters enough for their personalities to be fully developed or for me to be shocked by their various betrayals and reveals. There was so little time between the introduction of danger and its resolution that the events fell a little flat for me, but it was still nice to avoid the MUF protagonist's traditional first-book isolation.

[The ending was especially problematic: given that Connor basically characterizes the Formorians as the Celtic titans, the fact that he was so easily able to defeat them--and regained his magic(!) severely limited the impact and suspense. And he discovers and destroys the timeless evil in what, a total of 30 pages or so?? ]

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I was most disconcerted by what I saw as an underlying message: from the title to the eventual reveal, Del Franco seems to suggest that some people are born to be fundamentally and innately unfit to be part of society. I applaud Del Franco for having a "disabled" protagonist, but the book's events minimize the impact of this.

[When it actually counts, Connor magically regains his abilities, and all of the characters involved in the crime turn out to be those outside of society (or the parents of same): people with untraditional appearances and backgrounds.]

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Connor himself is guilty of constantly marginalizing those he sees as "different" or "unshapely," while this prejudice is pointed out in-universe, other aspects of the story, such as the title itself, seem to reinforce these troubling themes.

Overall, Unshapely Things is a good first effort; it utilizes many of the standard MUF motifs, but also brings originality to both the protagonist and the world. I may hold off to allow Connor to be humbled into a more attractive character and allow the world to develop a little more background and realism, but if you're looking for a light, enjoyable MUF adventure, look no farther.

 

[1] MUF harnesses the tone and motifs of hardboiled/noir: a lone down-on-his luck PI who starts out on an apparently simple case that in turn unmasks a massive web of corruption. Most of the MUF urban fantasy worlds are masquerade worlds in which humanity is unconscious of the magic aroud them, while it seems FLUFs tend to occur in unmasqued worlds. MUFs tend to be written in first person by a narrator who is both jaded and wry, and usually contain femme fatales, damsels in distress, gangsters, and a protagonist with a practically suicidal tendency towards wisecracks. In FLUF, the writing is usually less clipped and more descriptive, the supernatural players are usually vampires and werewolves, and the protagonist is usually a naif forced by circumstance into an investigation that pits her against one or more fascinating male love interests.