C. E. Murphy, Urban Shaman (Luna Books, 2005)

OK -- so you're a woman of Irish-Cherokee ancestry, almost six feet tall and a mechanic with the Seattle Police, and you see, from your plane, as you are approaching for a landing in the small hours of the morning, a woman being pursued by a pack of dogs while a man lies in wait with a knife -- what do you do? For Joan Walker -- née Síobhan Walkingstick -- it's a no-brainer: You grab a taxi and try to find the scene.

So begins C. E. Murphy's debut novel, Urban Shaman. Joanne -- known mostly as "Jo" or "Joanie," except to her superior, Captain Michael Morrison, to whom she is just "Walker," delivered in a growl -- is a natural shaman as it turns out, possessed of abilities that she has never acknowledged, or even recognized. She has three days to get up to snuff, because the Wild Hunt, led by the god Cernunnos, is loose in the world. In three days, the last day of Yuletide, his power will be at its greatest, and the Hunt's Guide, who not only leads them to the souls of those who are to die, but also is the only one with the power to return them to their own realm, is missing. Add to this a series of grisly murders linked to the Hunt in some way that Joanne doesn't quite understand, and she has her hands full.

Murphy has done her homework, blending the Germano-Celtic legends of the Wild Hunt with a Native spirit guide -- Coyote, in this instance -- and incorporating it all into a murder mystery. Walker is an engaging hero, with enough kinks in her past to provide the makings of complex character (although she spends an inordinate amount of time getting knocked on the head and otherwise beaten up), and the supporting cast is ably drawn, although they sometimes veer perilously close to stock characters. Action is swift, the writing fluent, and yet somehow it doesn't quite jell.

Murphy seems to have latched on to a trend in fantasy: the hero who is dragged kicking and screaming into being a hero, almost bludgeoned into using his or her abilities by mysterious outside agents. It's become trite already, and not terribly satisfying. It's too easy, and it's a conflict that has a built-in flaw: what reader of fantasy is going to identify with someone who doesn't want to be a hero? I don't -- I just get aggravated. I generally resist the urge to play compare and contrast in a review, but when faced with a choice between a protagonist like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden or Tanya Huff's Victory Nelson, to stay within the same genre, and a protagonist who resists becoming all he or she can be, I'll take Harry and Vicki every time.

It's still a good book. It could be a better book, and I'm looking forward to Murphy's next novel, because Joanne Walker is engaging enough and the mix is interesting enough that I want to see more. I just want Walker / Walkingstick to get her act together.

[Robert M. Tilendis]