The Last Hot Time - John M Ford
This book was recommended to me a year or so ago and I've seen other good reviews of it since, but it's taken a while to track down. It's a real shame when writing of this quality is unjustly overlooked by most punters in favour of mass market dross - see the latest bestseller lists, where Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson's latest Dune prequel has debuted at #3 (shudder). Is there a reason why it dropped so rapidly out of sight, or is the philistinism of the general public entirely to blame?
The Last Hot Time is an urban fantasy tale set in an alternate Chicago, where Elfland has returned and gangsters rule the streets. This is probably the first stumbling-block for a wider audience - people who want to read about elves may not want to read about gangsters, and vice versa. However, it's about damn time the Gateway to Fairyland thing was updated, and elves wielding machine guns is an image that I like very much.
The world-building here is very deftly done - Ford sticks strictly to the "show, don't tell" maxim and so the details are gradually revealed via the characters' actions, rather than dumped on us in clumsy conversation ("So, remind me, how did Elfland reappear?"). In the not-so-distant past, the parallel world of the elves began to overlap with ours, and now there are areas where the two places cross over, and magic works better than technology. In reaction to this, the world outside seems to have become more conservative, as everything dangerous and interesting was drawn towards the magical zones. The hints of this history were very enticing, and I was quite disappointed at how little was actually revealed by the end.
The main character is Dan, a young paramedic, who is leaving his stifling small-town existence and heading for the big city. He ends up being recruited as doctor ('Doc Hallownight') to Patrice, a gang lord in the middle of a war with various rivals, and it is from his point of view that we see the strange crossover zone of the Shadow, where the two worlds overlap. And the plot is... well, here's the other problem. There isn't really that much of a plot at all. Lots of things happen, and many of these are exciting things that relate to other events in the book, but nothing stands out as the main thread of the book. Is it the gang war itself? The traitor inside Patrice's camp? Dan's struggle to overcome his past? The curse on Patrice's girlfriend? It could be any of these, but none stand out enough to really care about.
I think Ford has erred here on the side of minimalism. Everything is hinted at and nothing is stated directly - this is good writing, and perfect for conjuring the hazy world of the Shadow, but by the end of the book you are still left wanting answers to all the questions posed throughout, and this makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. The lack of a strong central plot was also a weakness, and this is probably the main reason the book didn't do too well. Atmosphere is important, but at the end of the day I'm reading for the story. I'd definitely read more of Ford's work, and this was certainly an enjoyable read, but it wasn't as good as it ought to have been.