Urban Shaman

by C.E. Murphy

Cover image

Series: Walker Papers #1
Publisher: Luna
Copyright: June 2005
ISBN: 0-373-80223-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 344

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Joanne Walker is a mechanic for the Seattle police department, and when the story opens, she's flying back (on far too little sleep) from spending several months more than her permitted leave with her dying mother in Ireland. On the descent into Seattle, she sees, from the plane, a woman menaced by a man with a knife and several large dogs. The improbability of being able to see this from the airplane doesn't stop her from desperately trying to find the spot and the woman to try to help. She ends up in the middle of a confrontation with the Wild Hunt, almost killed, friends with a cab driver and a banshee, and trying to sort out surprising new powers on a tight time limit.

This is not a particularly well-written book on a mechanical level, and the first part is rough going. Murphy has a good hook, but the opening scene is followed by a large bit of conversational info-dumping to bring the characters and the readers up to speed with Murphy's world. It's a bit jarring and off-putting. One of the techniques many of the other recent urban fantasy writers use is to postulate an alternate world where the supernatural is known, if rare, to avoid the tedious readjustment of the characters' world view. Murphy neither does this nor tries a gradual reveal, which makes for a talky and awkward opening.

After that, though, the merits of this book start to shine through the choppy writing. Chief among them is the chosen mythological background: Walker is half Irish and half Native American and Murphy draws on those mythologies and, more importantly, types of magical power rather than the traditional vampires and weres. She also avoids pagan magic, elves, urban fairy, and the other typical mythological trappings. I found the Wild Hunt, banshees, and shamans fresh and more interesting.

The shaman concept is particularly strong. Walker goes through a typical orientation to her own latent power, but rather than power as a hunter or leader of mythological creatures (or a sex toy for vampires), her strength is as a healer and spirit guide. Even though there's rather a lot of fighting and blood, the shift of emphasis from destroyer to healer casts the story in a different light. Walker has to fix problems by finding solutions to old pains, not just by finding the villain and dispatching them; confrontations feel more like puzzles than tests of magical ability. It's similar to the advantages of the early Anita Blake books that still focused on her zombie resurrection abilities, before the series became all about vampires, weres, and Anita's powers. I hope in the future we'll see even more problems that can't be solved through violent confrontation.

Murphy struggles a little with the traditional first-person perspective. The effort to maintain a conversational, tough-girl, introspective tone that's typical of this sub-genre shows through and makes the story feel a bit labored. Joanne seems to be trying too hard to be an urban fantasy hero rather than being herself. But she does have moments of unique characterization, and when they come, they're inventive perspective shifts. My favorite was her use of car mechanic analogies to make sense of her healing powers, several of which (like the cracked windshield) were surprisingly effective. Another highlight is her relationship with her spirit guide, who manages to be more interesting than the typical mentor figure despite filling exactly that role.

There's no sex, no romance, and no complicated personal lives here, just a mystery, new powers, and a threat to the city to figure out. Joanne makes friends, even with men, without giving everything a sexual tint. Her personal angst runs more towards unresolved issues with her background and parents, and those she tries not to think about rather than constantly angsting over. That's another refreshing change towards realism and one that gives the book a lot of energy and forward momentum. Joanne doesn't have as much snark as some heros of this genre, but she doesn't waste pages bemoaning her life either.

Urban Shaman is choppy and strained in places, but it's original and doesn't suffer from the first-novel problem of being too crowded. It's not a great book, but it's a solidly entertaining one that doesn't feel just like the last four urban fantasies I've read. I'm not rushing out to get the rest of the series, but they are going onto my want list for eventual purchase. Recommended if you're in the mood for a paranormal detective story but are tired of sex, weres, and vampires.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-01-06

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21