Urban Shaman by C. E. Murphy

The Blurb On The Back:

Joanne Walker has three days to learn to use her shamanic powers and save the world from the unleashed WILD HUNT.

No worries.  No pressure.  Never mind the lack of sleep, the perplexing new talent for healing herself from fatal wounds, or the cryptic, talking coyote who appears in her dreams.

And if all that’s not bad enough, in the three years Joanne’s been a cop, she’s never seen a dead body – but she’s just come across her second in three days.

It’s been a bitch of a week.

AND IT ISN’T OVER YET.

You can order URBAN SHAMAN by C. E. Murphy from Amazon USA or Amazon UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s Tuesday 4th January and 26-year-old Joanne Walker is on a red-eye flight back from Dublin to Seattle.  She was in Ireland to see her estranged mother, who has since died from cancer and is still processing how she feels about it.  She’s also working out how she’s going to handle her boss, Captain Morrison, because Joanne is police officer (although she’s happier working in the garage on the cars than dealing with the other officers) and although he grudgingly signed her off for 6 weeks leave, she overshot that by a further 3 months without his permission and he’s very unhappy about it.  Joanne figures that her return to Seattle is going to be taken up with looking for a new job.

As the plane is preparing to land, Joanne looks out of the window, where she sees a woman being chased towards a church by a pack of golden hunting dogs, where a man with a butterfly knife is waiting for her.  Joanne knows that she’s got to help and enlists a 70-something cab driver called Gary to take her there.  At the church they find Marie D’Ambra, an anthropologist with an interest in cultural mythologies who also happens to be a banshee, able to foretell a person’s death.  She explains that she was being hunted by Cernunnos, a Celtic god and leader of the Wild Hunt, although she doesn’t know what he wants with her.  She wants Joanne’s help to keep her hidden from Cernunnos until 6th January, when his power will wane and the Wild Hunt will be banished to the other worlds.  Having eschewed both her Cherokee and Celtic backgrounds, Joanne suspects that this is all a load of baloney and is ready to walk away when an encounter with Cernunnos himself leaves her near death in a spirit world with only a coyote guide for company who tells her that she has to lean into her shaman heritage and develop her powers, not least of which is her ability to heal.  

As if this wasn’t all enough to be dealing with, someone is running around Seattle killing people apparently at random, including breaking into a classroom to murder a group of teenagers.  Joanne is sure that it’s linked to Cernunnos and Amanda but with Captain Morrison demoting her in an effort to force her to resign from the police force and her own struggles with accepting that there’s a paranormal world out there, she’s struggling to come to terms with everything and learn how to use the powers she never knew she had.  And she has to do it before midnight on 6th January because if she doesn’t, then Cernunnos and his Wild Hunt will stay for good …

C. E. Murphy’s debut novel (the first in an urban fantasy series) is packed with ideas and mixes Celtic and Cherokee mythology and makes interesting use of astral projection.  However the plot is overly busy, with too much set up and main character backstory for it all to feel cohesive and at times it tips into being contrived.  That said, I enjoyed Joanne’s relationship with Gary and there’s enough potential for me to read the next book.  

The story starts off with a bang with Joanne coming into land at Seattle airport and spotting a woman fleeing from the hounds.  I immediately enjoyed the relationship that sparks between Joanne and cab driver Gary – a 70-something widower with a talent for guessing passengers’ ages – who thinks Joanne is crazy but still wants to see what happens.  That friendship is the real Lynch pin of the book and I think it worked really well because Gary essentially serves as the reader in that Joanne can explain things to him and recap events and he can ask her questions.  I very much hope that it continues in future books because the genuine growing friendship reads true and feels very natural.

In contrast the relationship between Joanne and Captain Morrison was a bit of a yawn for me.  Partly it’s because he’s not on the page for particularly long but what is there seems to be a classic romance set up of the I hate you/I love you variety, which just isn’t my bag.  I’m also going to spare a mention for Billy Holliday, one of the detectives at the station Joanne works in who is also a cross-dresser and believes in the paranormal.  I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but it is a lot to be asked to believe in and as a result, he comes across as very contrived and not particularly believable.

I likes the way Murphy uses both Cherokee and Celtic mythology throughout the book.  They’re weaved together in such a way that they sit quite naturally with each other and Joanne’s natural resistance and reluctance to accept the supernatural actually makes it easier for the reader to buy into this with her.  The scenes between Joanne and Coyote are neatly done, adding to the mythology and fantasy elements but retaining a sense of mystery.  I also liked the way Murphy incorporates astral projection (something that’s always difficult to do without seeming cheesy).  I would have enjoyed a bit more development with Cernunnos because even by the end of the book I really wasn’t clear what he was doing or why – partly because the plot goes off to follow the serial killer and while that plot line did overlap, for me it brought more confusion than answers.

This brings me to my big issue with the book which is that there is an awful lot going on here.  Murphy has to introduce Joanne’s background, the wider mythology, and the plot and I think that it all worked to crowd each other out so nothing really got a chance to breathe.  This particularly hurt the main plot line for me because there’s not enough time spent developing what’s happening with Herne, how it ties in with the murders, what the end game is with Cernunnos and what Joanne can do to stop all of it.  As a result, I did find myself confused at a number of points towards the end and having to flick back to early pages to try and get a better sense of what had happened.  On the flip side, a lot of the first quarter of the book is spent setting up Marie so I did feel like it was a bit of a rug pull when she gets murdered and it’s an odd decision because, again, I didn’t really understand why she needed to be killed and I was surprised as she seemed like someone who was going to introduce Joanne to the supernatural world.  I should also mention that the overcrowding feel is made worse by the fact that this is all taking place over a tight timeframe of a few days, which also adds to the sense of not being able to breathe.  

In terms of Joanne’s personal history could have been left for the next book because while it was interesting, it didn’t immediately tie in with the plot here and just slowed things down.  Her role with the police force is particularly over-engineered for me – I couldn’t work out how this was supposed to work, she’s a mechanic but she also had to go to the Police Academy but she seems to have been a detective and not a street cop because part of the plot here is that she gets busted back down to street cop.  It just doesn’t seem necessary to me at all and it didn’t make a lot of sense given that she doesn’t do a lot of actual investigating.  The other thing that bothered me about Joanne is that for someone who’s quite strident and not afraid of speaking her mind, Murphy does fall back on that thing of making her clumsy at points when she doesn’t need to be so she keeps falling over in front of Morrison and Gary.  That’s a big pet peeve for me because it always comes across as demeaning and it was an annoyingly big thing in urban fantasy published around this time when there was a female lead.

Finally, I did have one other niggle with the book.  It was published in 2005 but it’s not clear what year this is set in (usually I assume urban fantasy is contemporaneous with the publication year).  And this is an issue because at one point Joanne says that the only money she has is Irish punts, which is fine but Ireland transitioned to the Euro in 2002.  In the greater scheme of things, it’s really not a big deal but it did throw me out and made me wonder what the year was – especially because there’s also a suggestion that internet use isn’t too mainstream.  I just needed some kind of hint in order to centre myself.

I get that all this sounds like I’m dumping on the book and I’m not.  The issues I have with it are I think fairly typical of debut novels – just doing too much too soon – and Murphy’s got a lot here that interests me and, I think, is unusual in urban fantasy.  I’m particularly interested to see how the astral projection elements develop over the series and I think that there’s enough there with Joanne and her exploration of her shaman powers to hold my interest.  As such, I would definitely be keen to read the next book.  

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