Michael R. Underwood – Geekomancy (2012) | Book Review

There seems to be a new trend in modernist urban fantasy to try to squeeze in as many pop cultural references as humanly possible. Some readers seem to get a kick out of reading a book that uses the word “frak” so that they can think to themselves, “I know that reference.” Not really sure why that is appealing, but these sorts of novels seem to be selling pretty well. Michael R. Underwood‘s Geekomancy is definitely that sort of book.

The primary basis for the world is that there is a large underground group of people who are able to channel nerdy pop culture things into temporary magical powers. Ree is a struggling screenwriter working a crummy day job who is drawn into this world when a crazed man wanders into her store, purchases a copy of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, and runs away. The next time she sees him, he is battling a troll straight out of classic fantasy, and she becomes one of the lucky ones that is actually able to remember the fantastical things she sees instead of going through a convenient amnesia following any supernatural incidents.

Roughly the first half or so of the book is spent introducing Ree and the reader into the world, as well as filling just about every page with a reference of some kind. Eastwood, the teacher who Ree originally meets buying the classic graphic novel, is an unlikable jerk who teaces Ree how to take power from the geeky things she likes; the stronger the user’s connection is, the better the results. The remainder of the half sets up the basic elements of what will become the actual plot, and breaks it up with so much useless dialogue that if the comedy style isn’t to your liking it is hard not to skip ahead pages at a time.

Once things start to get serious and the first of two significant twists comes, the plot becomes a focus of the novel rather than an afterthought. Ree and Eastwood are essentially trying to stop a chain of cosmically connected suicides, a surprisingly heavy idea considering that the book spends the majority of its time as a fluff piece. At the very least, Ree is an extremely likable character who shines when the plot starts to roll, and Underwood is actually a good writer with solid, believable dialogue and prose that does its job without being distracting.

Although this kind of novel will absolutely not age well, it will be enjoyable for some right now. It lacks any kind of real depth and definitely feels like the candy bar equivalent of urban fantasy, but it is still enjoyable if one is able to adequately suspend his or her disbelief and take the book on face value. Appreciated on its own merits, Geekomancy is an enjoyable romp that is easily forgotten when the last page is read. Comparing it to other works of urban fantasy that have managed to be similar entertaining while also accomplishing more in terms of literary significance is a mistake. Geekomancy can only be enjoyed if you simply go along for the ride and appreciate the nostalgia.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

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Review: Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (2010)

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: C

People of color in science fiction are rare. The genre is generally perceived as being something only for white people, no matter how many Samuel L. Jacksons show up in Star Wars films. It is an unfortunate thing, considering that the genre has been, in general, so forward thinking and ahead of its time in race relations and general civil rights. The first African-American woman to have a starring role on a television show was none other than Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek. It seems that since the seventies and eighties, however, science fiction has become something of a white male’s club. With that unfortunate fact, it is refreshing to be able to pick up a sci-fi novel with two people of color on the cover.

Zoo City is set in South Africa, as racially divisive a place as there is in the world, where a young woman and ex-con named Zinzi makes a living as a tracker. She is what is referred to as a “zoo”, a person who has a sort of fantastical animal companion attached to her as a result of committing a serious crime. With this, she also has a gift of being able to track items down that mean something to her clients, and she is eventually thrown into a long chase for a piece of mystery. Readers will immediately compare the animal familiars to those of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and rightfully so; Pullman’s work is even referenced in the novel, so it is fair to say it was an influence.

There are a lot of key strengths to Zoo City that would seem to lend to it being a standout novel. The urban fantasy world of South Africa that Beukes has developed is a wonderful playground, and characters like Zinzi and Benoit are memorable for their qualities both good and bad. It is refreshing to have characters that are not just vessels for plot, but that actually feel like genuine people with likable qualities and real flaws. Beukes also writes very well, with prose that is never too flowery but also keeps from ever feeling pedestrian.

The key problem with Zoo City is simply that the plot never really feels that exciting. As much as the characters grab the reader’s attention and as well developed sociologically and aesthetically the world of Zoo City is, the story itself leaves so much to be desired that in the end the novel doesn’t really manage to get all that much past average. Memorable characters and a wonderful setting are hard to come by, but without the story to drive it forward, there isn’t a lot to get excited about. Beukes is still a worthwhile writer who will certainly have better novels than this, as her gift for character will be the primary asset of her future output in fiction. Unfortunately, Zoo City is a little bit of a letdown.