Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest: It's (Sub)urban Fantasy

One of the great new genres to really explode onto our shelves in the last decade is Urban Fantasy - a style of story, usually taking place in the big, dark city, where modern settings mix with fantastical elements like magic, orcs and goblins. Usually, in these stories, the protagonist and a few others are the only ones aware of this other, supernatural, world, and the rest of us go about our lives blissfully ignorant. Magic is something special, known only to a select few.

A. Lee Martinez's excellent new book, Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest, could be defined as urban fantasy, if you squint and turn your head a little. It's got the same sort of feel - modern setting with a touch of magic - but a much different take on the whole thing. Instead of bringing elements of high fantasy to our world, this book brings elements of our world to high fantasy. The book takes place as if the world of books like The Lord of the Rings were our past. Technology and civilization developed in a similar way, giving us cars and television, and the marauding Orcs and beautiful Elves of the past became accountants and hamburger franchise managers.

The main crux of the story concerns Helen, the first female in a generation of her family to have come down with the full Minotaur curse. Unlike her mother, who just has the ears, she's covered in fur, and has two foot horns and hoofs. Being a high school girl, her life is not exactly perfect, and we open on her working her last day at the local hamburger joint. Don't worry, the irony isn't lost on her. When her boss tried to sacrifice her to a dead god, she and the impossibly perfect Troy are sent on an Official Quest.

From there, the book takes the two across a smorgasboard of middle america - truck stops, national parks, even an honest-to-god Mystery Spot, all with their own fantasy twist. And to Helen and Troy, and the biker gang of over the hill Orcs chasing them, all of this seems perfectly normal. That's what sets this book apart and makes it such a joy to read. It's a story of heroism, and magic, where everything is perfectly normal and expected. It's not Urban Fantasy, it's Suburban Fantasy, far away from the dark city streets and out in the light. This is a comedy, of that there can be no doubt, but buried underneath all the jokes is a real story of love, loss, and that moment as a teenager when everything feels right in the world.

While the book is definitely not a YA novel, I could still see wise parents handing their young girls Helen as a roll model over Katniss and Bella. I certainly would. Her story of coming to terms with who she is while not letting anyone control her life is absolutely worthy of being shown to little girls everywhere.

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