Friday, May 11, 2012

Spotlight Friday (1): Alaya Johnson - Moonshine, Wicked City

Spotlight Friday is a (hopefully) weekly feature I'm starting to highlight books that should get more attention.

Title: Moonshine
Author: Alaya Johnson
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Released: 2010
# of Ratings on Goodreads: 222
Buy From: AmazonBarnes & NobleBookdepository
Summary (via Goodreads):
Imagining vampires at the heart of the social struggles of 1920s, Moonshine blends a tempestuous romance with dramatic historical fiction, populated by a lively mythology inhabiting the gritty New York City streets.

Zephyr Hollis is an underfed, overzealous social activist who teaches night school to the underprivileged of the Lower East Side. Strapped for cash, Zephyr agrees to help a student, the mysterious Amir, who proposes she use her charity worker cover to bring down a notorious vampire mob boss.

What he doesn’t tell her is why. Soon enough she’s tutoring a child criminal with an angelic voice, dodging vampires high on a new blood-based street drug, and trying to determine the real reason behind Amir’s request — not to mention attempting to resist (often unsuccessfully) his dark, inhuman charm.

Title: Wicked City
Author: Alaya Johnson
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Released: April 10th, 2012
# of Ratings on Goodreads: 16
Buy From: AmazonBarnes & NobleBookdepository
Summary (via Goodreads):
In this page-turning follow up to Moonshine, it’s summer in the city and most vampires are drunk on the blood-based intoxicant Faust. The mayor has tied his political fortunes to legalizing the brew, but Zephyr Hollis has dedicated herself to the cause of Faust prohibition--at least when she isn’t knocking back sidecars in speakeasies.

But the game changes when dozens of vampires end up in the city morgue after drinking Faust. Are they succumbing to natural causes, or have they been deliberately poisoned? When an anonymous tip convinces the police of her guilt, Zephyr has to save her reputation, her freedom and possibly her life. Someone is after her blood--and this time it isn’t a vampire.

I Rec This Because: It's urban fantasy done right. I roll my eyes at most urban fantasy series because, instead of trying to evoke a sense of place or setting, many authors seem to pick a city at random and throw supernatural creatures in it. There is an implication, described very well by Daniel Hemmens at Ferretbrain, that a city and its people isn't interesting to authors or readers -- instead, it requires supernatural phenomena to make it interesting. Another complaint is the lack of inclusion of minorities; they often seem substituted for supernatural "outcasts" (vampires, werewolves, etc) instead.

This series doesn't suffer from these pitfalls. The Zephyr Hollis books take New York City's rich history and combine it with the supernatural. The main character, Zephyr Hollis, is a social activist who works at a night school; her roommate is an Irish immigrant with the powers of a seer. Her women's-only apartment is run by a Russian woman, the blood bank is run by a Jewish Ukrainian grandmother, there's a bakery owned and run by Syrians -- there is no lack of diversity, which is incredibly refreshing. Johnson deftly invokes the atmosphere of the 1920s, with speakeasies and protests abound. The vampires don't sparkle; if exposed to daylight, or killed by other means, they exsanguinate (or "pop") in a pretty disgusting manner.

The books are slow burns (lots of buildup and character development), but they're fun at the same time. I especially enjoyed the mob politics in both books -- the Turn Boys (a gang of young vampires) were fascinating to read about. Zephyr's a great heroine, and I thought it was really nice that in the second book, when she acts crappy, other characters call her on it. If you want urban fantasy that's a little different, this is worth checking out.

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