Corbenic, by Catherine Fisher

Corbenic moves in some well-trod circles, but it manages to execute them interestingly. It’s an urban-fantasy (as I understand the term) coming-of-age story, but it’s pretty far afield from the Chosen One battling fantasy monsters fare which characterizes so much young adult fantasy (and urban fantasy, if I understand it, just means the monsters are in present-day New York or London or somesuch). This review contains moderate spoilers.

Notably, Corbenic leaves it extremely openended as to whether (a) there is anything paranormal or fantastic at all happening, (b) whether the protagonist actually has any sort of special destiny, and (c) whether he accomplishes anything at all. The story wears its fantastical trappings lightly, and being filtered through the perceptions of a young man who reasonably fears he may be suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations makes our narrator just untrustworthy enough that, really, one could argue nothing fantastical happens at all.

Now, more about that narrator. Cal (who it is intimated has a full name of deep mythical resonance, but the obvious choice, “Percival”, is not something which would generally be shortened to “Cal”) is actually an awfully unpleasant young man. Raised in poverty, his only apparent desire in life is for the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle; hounded by his clingy, schizophrenic, and addicted mother, he’s tied in awful knots of love and hate and guilt. Cal is not unsympathetic: it’s clear why he would think the way he does, and he does indeed seem to have had a god-awful life, but it’s hard for an average fantasy reader to ride around in the head of someone who, on a trip into town, buys and lusts immoderately over a silk necktie, and attempts to hock the clearly magical sword given to him by the Fisher King. Unlike in so many stories, the resistance to the call of adventure isn’t mere Campbell-flavored window-dressing: it’s kind of at the core of the protagonist’s identity, and he keeps resisting abnormality until he’s managed to fuck things up hopelessly (harming several people profoundly in the process).

Don’t go into Corbenic expecting par-for-the-course fantasy fare, is my basic point here. It’s not actually urban fantasy so much as fantasy-themed psychodrama. It’s done well, and it’s an easy read. The prose doesn’t entirely sparkle, but it more than serves its purpose.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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