Well, it’s happened. I have finished reading the latest book series I picked up: the Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn, which is 14 books long, or 15 if you count the collection of assorted short stories set in the Kittyverse, which I did in fact read. This makes it a tie for first place in terms of the longest book series I’ve ever read, alongside the still-ongoing Dresden Files series.
And now, I am faced with the prospect of having Nothing To Read – which is a lie, a blatant falsehood that shall condemn my eternal soul to the burning depths of hell for my audacity to commit such base treachery to legible script; but that’s how it feels. And why? Why does it feel that way, when I still have about a dozen books that I bought during my undergrad days and never got around to even looking at, when I still have Presents of Christmas Past sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for their cue to play out, when I still have the lovely birthday present gifted to me by my co-writing buddy about the Napoleonic Wars but with dragons?
It’s because I don’t know what I’m in for with any of them. It’s the unknown. In short, it is because I am not prepared.
Preparedness has been a real theme for me this year – specifically, not having it, and learning to deal with it, or alternatively learning how many ways I can screw myself over by not dealing with it healthily. But I think when the prospect of reading a goddamn book is enough to get my anxiety up, it’s not just a theme: it’s a neurotic comedy. Or tragedy, if you happen to be the main character, which in this case I do. Tragicomedy, perhaps, because it is kind of funny how histrionic my reactions are to the circumstances of my own existence.
And yes, before you ask, I absolutely blame Urban Fantasy for this weakness of readerly fortitude. Before Urban Fantasy – and specifically YA Urban Fantasy, because my YA kick led pretty much directly into my current UF kick – I could read pretty much anything. I didn’t, because if there’s anything else I’ve learnt about myself this year it’s that I suck at doing things that I want to do because they terrify me, like reading fucking books … sigh. You get the point. I had a less sensitive palette; I was able to ingest various and sundry literature and not worry too much about what I was going to get out of it – in fact I daresay that was part of the fun.
But then YA came along, and to memory every single one of the books I picked up to read I found eminently readable, even and perhaps Beautiful Creatures, a problematic book for which I wrote a problematic review, many moons ago, but I can unambiguously state that it was one of the most grotesquely engaging reads I have ever had the displeasure of enjoying. I would say that actually the YA books I read were often more challenging reads than most of the Urban Fantasy I’ve come across. I’m particularly thinking of Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood (but not the sequel), Dia Reeves’s Bleeding Violet (which I wrote a review for and then deleted it because I was speeding way out of my lane), Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover (read before my YA kick, one of the few books I’m glad I was forced to read for university study), Cate Tiernan’s Sweep (I think it counts as Urban Fantasy?), and every single thing I have read by Holly Black. All of them tackle pretty complex issues and – as far as I can tell – handle them fairly maturely and respectfully (though again, I don’t really have the knowledge to comment on Bleeding Violet in that regard, as it deals with bipolar disorder), and all are written with skill. There were definitely others written with less skill and less, I dunno, quality? But they were all very readable, and I ended up reading some really powerful stories during that time.
When I made the jump to UF, it was mostly because I had read the first book in the Dresden Files series, been pretty skeeved out by a lot of it while simultaneously thoroughly entertained in a summer blockbuster kind of way, and decided I’d give it another chance. After reading several different authors in the genre, I can say two things.
1) The Dresden Files is not representative of the genre. It’s an odd duck. Anybody who says The Dresden Files is the gold standard of Urban Fantasy has no fucking idea what Urban Fantasy actually is – they’re extremely competent and engaging books, and I’d definitely recommend them (with a few reservations), but they are simply not representative of the genre. It’s sort of like if somebody says that Star Wars is the gold standard of science fiction – I certainly agree that it’s good, but if you know your sci-fi, you also know that Star Wars is very much an exception to the rule.
2) Urban Fantasy is, bar none, the easiest genre to read that I have ever come across. Part of that is, I have to say, a lack of surprises. I know exactly what I’m getting with Urban Fantasy: a tough-as-nails heroine with relatable quirks, such as a thing for bad boys and a serious martyr complex; alpha male creatures of the night who won’t take no for an answer because they know she really means yes please shoot me now; a dearth of supporting female characters who aren’t in some way antagonistic towards the heroine; a paranormal/supernatural kitchen sink; and most importantly – also the main reason for why The Dresden Files should not be considered representative of the genre – a primary focus on social politics, particularly with regards to gender, sexuality, and relationships, as well as different supernatural factions that tend to serve as metaphors for different cultures and ethnicities.
There are no surprises in Urban Fantasy, and this is ultimately the thing that is both the best about the genre, and the worst. It’s reliable, trustworthy – it’s safe. But that very sense of security and predictability that I get from Urban Fantasy is what has turned it into a crutch for me; it’s become too easy – and don’t get me wrong, I value that ease of access. But I am starting to feel that it has definitely gone too far, because it’s making me fucking afraid to pick up other genres.
And the reason I have come to this realisation is because, upon finishing the Kitty Norville series, I realised that I was out of Urban Fantasy that I actually wanted to read. I had backed myself into a corner; the seduction of how freaking effortless it’s been to read copious amounts of Urban Fantasy drove me there, and now I’m stuck trying to fight my way back out again, and it’s just … ludicrous. The only non-UF series I managed to read – and enjoy – was the Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal. I definitely recommend that one, and wish I had written reviews of the series while I was reading. It was thought-provoking and imaginative, and it was easy to ready – and that, really, is the main thing for me. The books that I have available to me are just not as easy to read. I’m terrified of the sheer amount of effort it will take for me to invest in these books. Yes, terrified, I am not joking, I am a fucking wreck, have you ever read this blog before.
Just as a couple of weeks ago I was simultaneously terrified and excited to tackle a bunch of daunting life-admin stuff, I am starting to feel the same way about stepping out of the Urban Fantasy world – and frankly, I think I desperately need to. I can’t remain this … pudgy, I think is a good term; I can’t be a pudgy reader, except in the literal sense because hey I eat too much. I need to get back in shape as a reader; I have allowed my reading muscles to atrophy through a steady diet of low-fibre literature, and the dilution of my psyche is the price I have paid for my hedonistic excess. How dare I enjoy myself by doing things that are fun and easy? I have learnt my lesson.
No but seriously, I think Urban Fantasy needs to be a sometimes-food. This is going to mean a lot of big changes in my library borrowing practices, though. Generally I get out 2-4 books at a time, because they’re UF and I just burn through them. I literally read all of the final Kitty Norville book last night, save the first chapter, which I had read the night before. But now, if I’m going to get serious about my literary diet, it’s going to have to be 1 book at a time, unless I find a series that I really get into. However, for now it’s all water-testing, and I know my own limits – too much choice is overwhelming, so 1 at a time to start off feels correct.
And, of course, I still have all of these books that I actually, like, own to read, too. So while I wait for my latest library order to come through (and yes, I literally ordered it just before I wrote the previous paragraph), I can go through some of those. I don’t have to wait for something new to come in; I have resources. I can rely on my own means to get where I want to go.
And who knows? Perhaps this whole food metaphor will carry over into my actual eating habits. But in the meantime – well, I’ve talked up YA a lot in this post, and frankly, I’m starting to miss it. There was a lot of not-great YA that I read, but the stuff that stood out really stood out, and I’m definitely in the mood for more of that. I think it’s time for the YA kick to kick back off where it …
The kick to kick off where it last …
I think it’s off for me to kick the where it the time …
Why am I a writer again?
So asketh the Ubermensch …