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Urban Fantastic
Allen Ashley
Crowswing Books, 285 pages

Urban Fantastic
Allen Ashley
At various stages of his career, Allen Ashley has also been a performance poet, a singer/songwriter, a music critic and a football journalist. He currently writes under a different name for the London listings magazine Time Out. His books include his debut novel, The Planet Suite (TTA Press, 1997), a collection of short stories Somnambulists (Elastic Press, 2004); and an anthology The Elastic Book of Numbers (Elastic Press, 2005).

Allen Ashley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Elastic Book of Numbers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

The cover blurb of Allen Ashley's new story collection is in no doubt as to the book's importance: "Urban Fantastic is set to become the defining text in a new genre for the 21st Century." Whilst I doubt that will happen, there is nevertheless something in that comment, in that Ashley's work inhabits territory that the fantasy genre could usefully exploit/explore in the years ahead. If the first stage in the development of modern fantasy was ambiguity (is the fantastic element in the story real or not?), and the second stage was stories in which the fantasy is acknowledged to be real; then the logical next step is to put the fantasy to work -- and this is what Ashley does in his stories.

A good example is "The Overwhelm," in which the atmosphere has inexplicably contracted, bringing fog to the streets, dropping satellites from the sky, and so on. But, instead of concentrating on this, Ashley's focus is Josephine, a social worker whose life is bearing down on her just as the atmosphere is bearing down on the ground. The constricting atmosphere is both a metaphor for the protagonist's state, and, at the same time, a real "agent" of the story. The effect is quite electrifying; that's what I mean by putting fantasy to work.

Which is not to say that Ashley can't do straightforward uncertainty. "Scarricrow" may have you questioning the sanity of its protagonist, who falls in love with -- and even beds -- a scarecrow; unless of course the scarecrow is... but it couldn't really be -- could it? "A Life in Maps" is narrated by a civil servant in the Department of Map Verification, who believes that the very act of mapping shapes the world. Given that it's an Ashley story, he might just be right; if only someone would listen... These tales are particularly effective in a collection, as they play with our expectations of what Ashley will do.

"Theseus Rex" draws parallels between the myth and the life of its modern-day protagonist. There is some evocative writing in the piece ("My whole life... just something I had to live through."), and the idea is interesting; but I'm not sure the different parts quite fit together. The mythic passages are related in a somewhat jokey and anachronistic fashion (so, for example, Icarus falls because of an "air traffic controllers' dispute") that sits uncomfortably with the more serious contemporary sections.

That's not the only story about which I have reservations. Ashley generally stays on the right side of obscurity, but I just couldn't figure out "The Fern House." I have an idea about what's going on (and Peter Crowther's introduction to the volume gives a clue); but -- and maybe it's just me -- I didn't "get" it, and the feeling was more annoying than intriguing. Or there's "The Ideas Mountain," in which a writer learns of the titular "mountain," a pile of stones that one can crumble and swallow to gain inspiration. The story is okay, but it's set in a parody sideways version of reality (for instance, there's a big computer firm called Microcorps founded by one Danny Fencepost) and, as with "Theseus Rex," that knowingness works against the flow of the story. Even though Ashley comes up with a reasonable explanation for something as absurd as people in the tale being attacked with trowels, it's simply not as good as when he plays it straight.

But sometimes all those... well, Ashleynesses, if you like, come together in some strange alchemy that just works. "Felicia and the Cheese and Onion" has such daft notions as a company having a "back to school" day, so the staff finish work at 3:30 and the boss reads them all a story. But this tale of a man ruminating on the passage of time and coping with a woman answering a job advert that bears his number in error is also laced with dry wit ("I thought I could hear a brass band and distant shouting or cheering. Maybe the local council was putting on a free concert to placate the unemployed.") and is a pleasure, if something of a puzzle, to read.

And, despite my criticisms, I should say that Ashley hits the mark most of the time. "Professor Clork and the Love Darts" takes place in some other iteration of Britain, where people are concerned about their jobs being taken over by machines, but "cherubs" sell "love darts" on the street and the system of government hails from an earlier age. Ashley's approach here gives new energy to an old theme -- but you'll have to read the story yourself to find out what, and how...

Urban Fantastic showcases many of Allen Ashley's virtues as a writer, such as his facility with language and the willingness to make fantasy earn its keep. But it also has its flaws: occasional lapses into the further reaches of obscurity, or jarring shifts in tone. Readers new to Ashley's work should still begin with Somnambulists, his outstanding first collection, which is almost pure brilliance. But, though Urban Fantastic does not quite reach the same dizzy heights, it is still a fine demonstration of its author's talents. Ashley's work isn't so much a handbook for 21st-century fantasy as a touchstone; this is the level of individuality which writers should aim to reach. Let us hope they rise to the challenge -- and let's celebrate those, like Ashley, who meet it.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.

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