There are a lot of books around at the moment that call themselves urban fantasy. Many of them have mythical creatures and ways into other worlds. Most have some form of inherent magic. A lot are enjoyable but authors seem to be running a bit thin on new variations. Although American authors do tend to set their urban fantasies in cities they are familiar with, it is rare for a British author to go out of his way to set the novel outside London.
James Brogden not only has a new slant on the genre but has also used Birmingham, England, as his setting at least for the first two thirds of the book. ‘The Narrows’ are short cuts around the city. How to use them and where they go is knowledge known only to fully fledged Narrowfolk. Bex is on her way to becoming one of them and has one last test. Bex is the kind of person most people do not or pretend not to see. She is a runaway and homeless. She lives in a community that survives by scavenging and bartering and who are at home in the Narrows. During her final test, Bex and Dodd, her mentor, are set upon by dog-like beasts called scavags.
While Bex is one view-point character, the other main one is Andy Sumner. Although he has dropped out of University and works at a gaming outlet in Birmingham’s city centre, he has managed to snag himself a beautiful ambitious fiancée. Whether it is anxiety about the wedding, he is not sure but strange things start to happen. There is the incident in the surgery when he and Laura go for jabs, in preparation for the honeymoon in Cuba. Andy already had a fear of needles but when the syringe explodes, ripping off the nurse’s fingers he begins to wonder if there is something wrong with him. Then, on a lunch time mission to get vine leaves for a recipe Laura intends to serve to their parents, he takes a short-cut back to the shop. Except that it isn’t a short-cut in the way he expects. Going down a narrow alley and across a stretch of wasteland, he finds himself on the other side of the city and several bus rides from where he expected to be.
The meeting between Bex and Andy is apparently accidental. His train home is stuck outside a station. She is fleeing the scavags. Not knowing why, he helps her force the doors open so that she can board the train. Though he doesn’t see Bex again for some time, he does wander back into the Narrows, conscious that the weirdness is not going away. Then on the day that he throws in his job, Bex is waiting for him outside the station. From this point on, Andy begins to leave behind the normality of his life with Laura and follows Bex into the strange under world of the Narrows and danger.
The premise behind the Narrows is that ley lines, paths that energy takes through the Earth, splinter and divide on reaching a city, in the same way that a river can divide into a braided delta. These branches are the Narrows which can be navigated by those who have the knowledge. There are two problems. The first is that at this time of year, approaching Christmas, nasty, dangerous things like the scavags can get through from another dimension. Also, someone is closing the Narrows, making it harder travel across the city. The man who holds the clues as to what is happening is Andrew ‘Rosey’ Penrose, an ex-copper who, sixteen years previously, had rescued a child from what appeared to be torture. The answers, however, lie outside the boundaries of Birmingham and take the three of them into Oxfordshire.
While the action takes place within the city, this has all the hallmarks of a good, urban fantasy with an unusual twist. The problem comes when Brogden takes the plot into the countryside and the past. He has tried to place a scientific explanation on events turning the story from one of urban magic into a mad scientist tale. As such, it loses some of its power to enchant and the characters lose their edge once out of their proper environment, the darker parts of the city. Having said this, for a first novel, this is an enjoyable read from an author that shows potential.
(pub: Snowbooks. 365 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907777-59-2)
check out website: www.snowbooks.com