After publishing five novels with Tor Books, I moved to new publisher Orbit Books with Monster. This is my dip into the urban fantasy genre, and while I’d experimented with fantastic elements in the modern world in Gil’s All Fright Diner (which is technically rural fantasy though not sure that’s an official genre), I’d never tackled the specific assumptions and conventions of the urban fantasy genre.
Monster is solidly urban fantasy. It features a protagonist who lives in both the modern world and a magical one. He has magical powers and knows secrets that more mundane folks can’t understand. But there are some choices I made that think set it apart.
Monster himself isn’t some super powerful wizard or cool dude. He’s just a working stiff who happens to know how to do magic. Nobody in Monster’s world is glamorous. Everybody’s just trying to get by. Monster is a glorified dog catcher, and even his demon girlfriend is merely an employee of the Underworld. Judy, our second protagonist, is even less cool, stuck between forces beyond her ken.
Magic in the world of Monster isn’t some innate talent or secret society. It’s a skill. With a few markers and a sticky pad, Monster can accomplish amazing feats. The limitation is that it’s difficult to remember properly because of a fugue settled over the world. Most people can’t process magic, must less understand it. But if they manage to do something right, say the right words, write the correct symbols, it works as well for them as for anyone else.
Monster is unusual for an A. Lee Martinez protagonist because he’s a jerk throughout the story. He doesn’t grow. He doesn’t change. His problems spring from his own uwillingness to admit his mistakes and try to improve himself. He’s as close to a tragic hero as I’ve written at this point. It wasn’t my original intent, but as time goes by, I see Monster as a man who is doomed to be unhappy simply because of his inability to overcome his own myopic self-centered attitude. When confronted with the chance to be a better person, Monster doesn’t take it. It’s not that he’s a lousy person. He’s just not a great person. He’s not cruel or malicious, but he’s too self-absorbed to pay much attention to those around him. He gives very little to the world and then he’s surprised when he gets very little in return.
The other element of Monster was my dislike of the “Two Characters Fight Because They Like Each Other”. So Monster and Judy meet and immediately don’t like each other. Our expectation is that they’ll eventually get over that and perhaps even fall in love. And (spoiler alert) they never do.
I love that about the novel.
Monster is NOT a love story. From page one, it’s clear that Monster and Judy don’t get along at all, and as the story progresses, it becomes more clear that they never will. It’s only our conditioning that expects them to, and that’s just ignoring the truth: Monster and Judy can barely stand one another. This isn’t cutesy “Will they/Won’t they”. This is “They won’t” and “They never will” and “They never should”.
The novel still shares the common theme of cooperation and friendship. Even Monster isn’t friendless. Chester the paper gnome might be an employee, but he cares about Monster. And Monster, despite his shortcomings, does help Judy when he sees what’s at stake. He’s not eager to do so. He isn’t the guy willing to stick his neck out. But when he has no choice, he’ll rise to the occasion, and by the end, Monster and Judy, while not strictly friends, at least respect each other.
Yet Monster isn’t due for a happy ending. By story’s end, he’s still the same guy on the same path, and that destination is of a sad, lonely man who saved the universe once but is unlikely to save himself. That’s what separates him from Judy and from every other A. Lee Martinez protagonist. Even Vom the Hungering, who might very well eat the universe at some point, is trying to be a better person. But Monster doesn’t aspire. It’s why Judy is on her way to a brighter future while Monster carries on like he did before.
It’s not exactly a tragedy, but it kind of sucks for the poor guy. But sometimes, even a writer can’t save his creations from themselves.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,