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In Association with Amazon.com
Desdaemona
Ben Macallan
Solaris paperback £7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Whatever happened to urban fantasy? Where did it all go so horribly wrong? I still remember the first publication of Emma Bull's War For The Oaks, and the excitement that people felt when her novel burst onto the scene. Terri Windling's Borderlands series touched a similar nerve, and for all that I find much of his writing incorrigibly sentimental, Charles de Lint's novels occupy the same territory. In this version of urban fantasy, the twin worlds of the contemporary and the fantastic wound around one another, running parallel most of the time, the fantastic somehow just out of sight of the quotidian, living in the corner of the eye.

From time to time, however, it came sharply into view as the fantastic burst uncontrollably into the mundane. Those living on the margins of society, the young, the counter-culturalists are from the outset more sensitive to its existence, and are better positioned to cope with its intrusions, although by no means to its effects. Nonetheless they often take up the role of mediator between the real and the supernatural, negotiating a way through the chaos. This is not the fantasy of restoration or restitution but fantasy intended to jolt people out of their complacency. It hurts people, it destroys things, and it forces us to face up to the things we have tried to ignore.

And yes, in its way it is romantic and glamorous. Privileged or secret knowledge always is. What could possibly be more exciting than the sense of knowing that people were watching; that at any moment your passage along the high street could truly turn into a walk on the wild side? For the young or disaffected, the street suddenly had potential. They might just be lifted out of the boring reality that passed for life. But old-style urban fantasy also had a hard edge and a strong compassionate side; de Lint's fiction, in particular, was notable for its awareness of how many of the street people and their fantastical near-neighbours struggled to survive, to maintain equilibrium. His people, from both sides of the divide, looked out for one another, constructed their own community based on common need, and gave support as necessary. They policed themselves. It was idealistic, perhaps too much so, but better a little idealism than outright cynicism.

I'm not sure precisely when urban fantasy first took up with hardboiled fiction, nor precisely when it spawned their demon offspring, paranormal romance, and had a post-natal makeover, but somewhere along the way things changed. Accidental encounter was replaced by vigilantism and independent policing by human (or at any rate half-human) private eyes. Elemental magic was replaced by a clear hierarchy of good and bad supernatural creatures, with vampires occupying a peculiarly ambivalent position, depending on whether they were vampires of noble birth or made their way by preying on any old lowlife.

Even in the world beyond, money talks; as does appearance. The chaotic forms of magic have no place in this world and must be stopped at the border, like the wrong kind of migrant. Those who sneak through, using the occult equivalent of sneaking a lift underneath a lorry must be repelled. Meanwhile, the clothes are fantastic; the sex is always, and often literally, out of this world. This is no longer honest street fiction but gap-year slumming. On the plus side, one might argue that urban paranormal romance provides a venue in which to present strong female characters, though the repertoire is still very limited. If the best role model that can be offered is a quick blow to the jaw and a stake through the heart as a way of succeeding in life; I'll pass, thanks.

Which brings us to Ben Macallan's Desdaemona, described as urban fantasy, with a defiant young woman staring out from the cover while behind her in an alleyway lurks a somewhat dyspeptic werewolf. The heart sinks, momentarily, but while there is nothing on this cover which isn't in the novel, this narrative goes far beyond the canons of the modern urban fantasy. The story is narrated by… he calls himself 'Michael' initially, is known to those looking for him as Jordan, and in the end settles for Jay, which is what I shall call him. Jay is 17, and on the run; from what is not entirely clear at first, but he's been on the run for a long time and has a formidable arsenal of survival skills.

This is not surprising as he has also been 17 for a long time. How long is unclear but it is fairly obvious that Jay is something other than human and he has power; power which for the most part he declines to use, in order to avoid being detected. Insofar as he has a job, Jay finds people lost at the margins of the world and sends them home to their families. He's hard-headed enough to take the reward if it is offered but it is compassion that moves him as much as financial considerations.

One might argue that Macallan is again glamorising the life of the drifter, the homeless, the unemployed, but Jay's narration instead provides a sharp insight into the life of the pale teenager hunched over a table, making a cup of tea last for hours. A careless treat today means nothing to eat tomorrow. Money must be eked out, and one should never get used to luxury. Jay has all the moves down pat and is ready to get the next bus out of town if something seems amiss. In this instance, what is amiss is the arrival of Desi - young and beautiful, offering coffee, cake, and a job opportunity. More worryingly for Jay, she has been tracking him, and apparently has connections with the supernatural world he is running from. In the end, though, he bows to what seems to be inevitable and agrees to help her find her sister, Fay. Only belatedly does he realise that Desi is in fact a daemon, part of the world he is trying to escape.

An odd couple in search of a missing person is a classic hardboiled trope, but it is apparent from the beginning that there is something not quite right about this set-up. Desi seems inclined to disrupt Jay's attempts to help, despite what she says about needing his insight as a person in the same situation. Meanwhile, Desi seems to be doing her level best to accustom Jay to a life of decent food, drink and luxury, something he is reluctant to accept. For those who thrive on kick-ass plotting, the narrative might seem to be moving far too slowly.

However, what Macallan portrays is the hesitant development of a relationship between two cripplingly lonely people. Desi is worried about her sister who, Jay discovers, became pregnant by an immortal and aborted the baby, something never done in a world where children are rare. Jay himself is becoming aware that others are now on his trail. He is attacked by an undine, and more seriously by a lithiad, a stone man, who injures him badly. He and Desi become immersed in a supernatural underworld far more sinister than anything portrayed in most modern urban fantasy. It's a world to avoid rather than one to actively seek out. It's true that there are families of privilege and rank - it turns out that Jay himself has such connections - but they frequently treat their children and dependents very harshly. This is not a glamorous world but one of dynastic jockeying that wouldn't be out of place in 19th century England. It's all about bloodlines, not love.

And nor is Macallan afraid to challenge our expectations about monsters and culture-heroes. His is not a cosy view of the mythological. Encounters with the supernatural are bloody and bruising. Innocent bystanders are caught up in the fighting, as the older, wilder magics wrestle for supremacy. And yet, in the midst of this Jay stands as a being attempting to ward off disaster but also as a runaway boy who refuses to go home, even when his family finally tracks him down. There are touching scenes with the half-brother for whom he was a role model before he left, as they try to reconcile what they have both become with who they once were, and what Asher is asking of Jay. The raw pain of their twin dilemmas is captured in some of the best writing in this novel.

Throughout, Macallan tests the tropes of modern urban fantasy and explores the downside. Wealth is there, but it has to be earned, and the manner of its earning creates other dilemmas. Power exists but its use has consequences. Indeed, Macallan makes it plain that all actions have consequences and often require sacrifices. There is little in the way of sentimental magic here. The other world is as harsh as this one, if not more so. And this, perhaps, is Macallan's most important point.

Modern urban fantasy is not, or should not be, about escapism, about a withdrawal into a pink and fluffy world where magical powers grant you privilege and the automatic choice of the best of everything. It is about taking responsibility for what you do and accepting the consequences of your actions; about challenging the status quo, about doing what is right rather than what is appropriate. Desdaemona is a very moral urban fantasy, and that in part is what lifts it above much of what is currently being published. That, and the fact that Macallan, better known to some as Chaz Brenchley, is simply a very fine writer, making this novel a genuine pleasure to read. One can only hope that other writers take the hint and start writing urban fantasy with brains behind it as well as guts.

Desdaemona by Ben Macallan



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