Like most other genres fantasy has evolved over the years until it now includes its own sub-genres. One of the more recent twists on it is something called urban fantasy. While that might imply stories specifically set in the city, it pretty much encompasses any tale set in modern times which contains enough magical elements for it to qualify for the fantasy genre.
Unfortunately these days the most predominant form these stories take seem to be paranormal romances dealing with illicit love between humans and either vampires or werewolves. Basically your typical romance drivel with the dark brooding guy being a little more mysterious then in earlier works of the same ilk.
Thankfully there are a few authors out there who have shunned that path and understand fantasy and imagination don't have to be strangers. One of my personal favourites for years has been Canadian author Tanya Huff. She seems to be able to write everything from military science fiction to pure old fashioned fantasy. Perhaps it's this versatility which allows her to be so comfortable with urban fantasy's demands for combining contemporary settings with magic and other fantastic elements. In 2009's The Enchantment Emporium she introduced us to the Gale family whose women wield extraordinary powers and whose men sprout antlers.
The Gales are all about family and setting down roots. Each generation has their role to play in establishing the family's connection with their territory, and once established the family is pretty much tied to that land. They not only draw their power from the area, but are also responsible for using that power to take care of it. However once every few generations or so a Gale is born who is different. Known as wild powers they don't settle down and have the gift to travel through time and space. In Huff's second novel about the Gales, The Wild Ways, published by Penguin Canada, we are reintroduced to many of the characters we met in the first book, but this time the focus is on Charlie, this generation's wild power.
Charlie is a musician and until recently has lived on the road playing with any and every band that can use her. However since her cousin Alley established the family in Calgary Alberta Canada she's become something of a homebody, sharing space with her cousin, her cousin's husband and a fourteen year old Dragon Lord named Jack from the under realm who also happens to be a cousin. (Read The Enchantment Emporium for details) While part of her is enjoying the domesticity, another part of her is chaffing at settling.
The Aunts - a designation given to any Gale woman once they obtain a certain age - a group of matronly women who strike fear into the hearts of any sane being, human or otherwise, are starting to drop hints if she doesn't make up her mind soon about what she's going to do with her life they'll make the decision for her. Since that would probably involve far more domestic bliss than she's really interested in coping with, a call from musician friends in need of her skills from the East Coast of Canada, comes as a relief. She can hit the road and put off making a decision for the summer.
However, fate, destiny and or the Aunts have something else in mind. Upon her arrival in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia Canada Charlie discovers her aunt Catherine, a previous generation's wild power, has stirred up trouble for some of the locals. While not human or from this realm, Selkies, seals who can take off their pelts and turn into alluring women, have been living in Cape Breton for as long as there have been humans. In order to preserve their natural habitat, the ocean, they have formed the core of a very powerful environmental lobby group. Already instrumental in curtailing the annual seal hunt and working to preserve depleted fish stocks, their latest is Carson Oil who is determined to begin drilling for off shore oil near what is not only protected land, but one of the largest seal colonies on the island.
If one wants to control a Selkie you wait until they have assumed their human form and then you steal their skin. According to ancient lore if a man takes a Selkie's skin she is obliged to become his wife and love him. However if she ever finds her skin again, she will return to her home beneath the waves. Carlson Oil isn't looking for the love of a good seal, they're looking to get permits for drilling rights.
So when Catherine Gale says she has a solution to their problem the oil company's CEO will pay any price she asks. While she may not understand the supernatural, Amelia Carlson understands blackmail. So hiding the seal skins from the Selkies until they come out in support of her company's drilling operation makes perfect sense to her.
With the assistance of her Dragon Lord cousin Jack, Charlie decides to not only help the Selkies recover their skins - one of her band mates is married to one of the Selkies - and attempt to figure out why a member of her family would align herself with one of the greedheads of the world. While it might be just be perversity on aunt Catherine's part - I'm doing because I can and I never really liked that holier than thou attitude of the Selkies to begin with - with the Aunts one can never tell. Wild power or not, all of the Aunts are manipulative out of habit, and who knows how many ulterior motives might lay behind Aunt Catherine's decision to scoop the seal skins.
I don't know how Tanya Huff is able to do it, but she has this great ability to write whimsical and funny fantasy novels which on the surface don't appear to have much to them. However, you're sailing along enjoying the bad jokes, occasional sexual innuendo, the characters and the adventure when all of a sudden you run into a serious thought. It's so subtly done you could almost miss it.
Yet, as in the case of The Wild Ways, you all of a sudden realize it is the heart of the story and everything has been winding its way towards this point from the beginning. While the plot is important as it creates the opportunity for the character(s) in the book to make the journey required of them, it's this underlying theme which gives Huff's books their real strength.
Most books of this type would be content with just being an adventure/comedy/fantasy, which while tasty enough, usually have all the substance of cotton candy. With a core of intelligence beneath its surface, what would have been the equivalent of a literary snack with the potential for tooth decay, becomes a meal to satisfy most appetites. Combined with Huff's ability to blend ancient traditions seamlessly into the modern world and making them seem perfectly normal and characters who are appealing and fun to hang out with, you're in for an amazing read. A perfect example of how there's more to urban fantasy than teenage girls swooning over the undead and how so many others are failing to exploit the genre's full potential.
(Article first published as Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted November 2011)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.