If you’ve had a sneaking suspicion, a tingling sixth sense sensation that there is more the world around you than meets the eye, then welcome to the mysterious world of Mur Lafferty where zombies and vampires, dragons, sprites and Nordic Goddesses are not only real but “living” and working around you.
It’s a world that Zoë Norris didn’t even know existed, in common with almost, I say almost, every other member of the human race – there are those of us who possess magical powers such as zoëtists, werewolves and city talkers but our numbers are not what they once were – until she took a job with Underground Publishing in New York City.
The publishing house, which specialises in travel books for coterie and is run by a vampire called Phil and staffed by water sprites, death goddesses, zombies and life goddesses among many other beings known collectively as coterie, is not the sort of place Zoë expected to end up but life and circumstances had not given her an excessive amount of choices at the time and so she was forced to come to grips with a bizarre, tantalisingly different and often dangerous world that exists in tandem but often diametrically at odds with our own.
“She didn’t feel threatened by any of the other people on her staff. While the vampires and zombies (one zombie anyway; the other two had died because of zoëtist meddling last December) could eat her, none had threatened her beyond Kevin … The other coterie in the office ranged from friendly to neutral.” (P. 32)
In the first volume in this series The Shambling Guide to New York City, Zoë and her staff of writers wrote up all the weird and wonderful coterie elements to life in the Big Apple while she discovered, much her to surprise that she is a city talker, a person who, you guessed it, can speak to the urban lives that increasingly define humanity’s existence.
Now in the book’s sequel, Ghost Train to New Orleans, Zoë has had time to come to grips with this strange new world and her role in it, and is off with her team – possible good friend Gwen (death goddess), new hire Eir (Nordic life goddess), vampires Opal and Kevin (the latter abhors Zoë, a loathing that is returned in kind and then some) and boyfriend Arthur who is in danger of turning into a zombie if he doesn’t get some herbs from a fabled zoëtist called the Doyenne who resides in the swamps outside New Orleans.
With a new travel guide book to write, cures to find and a whole lot of revelations coming her way courtesy of an assassin city talker called Reynard, an Irish ghost called Anna and the rather skittish city of New Orleans, there is potentially a lot of epic, amazing things coming Zoë’s way.
And yet, for all its unputdownability, Ghost Train to New Orleans feels like an oddly inert book that never really gathers any kind of narrative momentum, and leaves oddly underwhelmed at its middling conclusion.
It’s a pity because Mur Lafferty is a damn good writer, able to build the most amazing worlds in the sort of complete, lived-in, authentic way that many others writers can only dream about; and in that respect Ghost Train shines, the vibrancy, variety and sheer tangled messiness of coterie life in New Orleans coming through in ways so rich and engaging that it makes the human parallel world happening in plain sight all around it look kind of dull by comparison.
We learn about the many deities such as the august The One Who Kills and Is Thanked for It, who generously holds court in New Orleans, the cats of Jackson Square led by the ancient Egyptian cat Bygul, the water sprites who ran rampant through the city post Hurrican Katrina and threatened to destroy it, and the vampire ex-slaves who still run one of the old plantations in whose soil lives the dying spirit of the evil slave owner who once made their lives hell.
In that respect, and in the telling of the lives of Zoë and her team of writers, who spend a great deal of time doing everything but write their travel guide, Ghost Train to New Orleans shines as brightly and engagingly as its predecessor, ushering us into and keeping us eagerly in a world that is dangerous and exotic, and wholly not our own.
It’s an intoxicating place to be and explains why the book is so easy to read and enjoy.
“The zombie’s eyes flicked up behind Zoë, and she realized the bartender was checking with the host. She unconsciously slipped into the city for a wider look at the room, and saw him give a nod … The bottle was in front of her, and the vampires and demon glared at her.” (P. 259)
But Ghost Train is let down by its underdeveloped, barely-there plot that halfheartedly has Zoë pursued by the Grey Cabal, a group of mercenary humans and coteries, her boyfriend Arthur looking for his cure, and musings about where her disappeared old friend Morgen might be.
Instead of coalescing into a gripping whole, they remain as under-done fragments, promising to lead somewhere but never really gelling or going anywhere.
It was not a problem suffered by its predecessor which managed to balance fearsomely good worldbuilding, character development and a cracking good storyline; in contrast, Ghost Train, while utterly immersive and compelling when it comes to the world it conjures up and the characters that inhabit it, shuffles along like one of its resident zombies, its narrative as much a pale imitation of the real thing as the undead that inhabit the world of the living.
It is a great escapist read, very well realised urban fantasy in many respects but it is a disappointment compared to New York and you can only hope that the foreshadowed third book, which could potentially take us to England and the murky world of the Grey Cabal, finds its storytelling mojo lest it become as undead and lifeless as its supernatural residents.