My Magical Watch

(I was asked to write a true Urban Fantasy story. This might border more on magical realism, but here it is…)

I confess that I don’t put much stock in ghost stories or psychic events, but on the other hand, I can’t tell someone that they did not actually experience what they remember experiencing. After all, I’m not the one who was there. With that in mind, let me tell you about a wristwatch of mine that seemed to know more about how to live life than I did.

It was an unassuming little thing, an analog wristwatch with a small digital inset. I’d had it for years, and the gold-plating on the wristband had faded to a dull yellow. I would have replaced it long before, except for the fact that it was thin and lightweight, and the trend for men’s wristwatches had moved towards bulky anchors. Those factors combined to make the watch literally irreplaceable. So I was that much more annoyed when it started acting funny.

You see, sometimes, it would simply stop. The hands would freeze in place, and the digital portion would go blank.

My first thought was that the battery was dead, but before I could take it down to Walmart to get a fresh battery installed, it started working again. So I reset the time and continued on my way. But then it would stop again, and after a day or so, it would restart. After a few months of this I began to notice a pattern.

It only stopped on the weekends.

Being something of a scientist, I began to sniff around for rational explanations. Texas is hot from April to October, and I was frequently outside in the yard working up a sweat on the weekends. Sometimes I was mowing the lawn with plenty of vibrations coming up through my hands from the mower. That had to be it, right? Or could it be the heat and humidity? That made sense. So I stopped wearing it while doing yardwork, but even then, it would still sometimes stop on the weekend.

Well, that wasn’t not so bad. The weekend is a time to relax. As my wife put it, I don’t really need to worry about time on the weekends. She suggested that perhaps my watch was trying to tell me not to worry about the time when I should be relaxing and enjoying life instead.

While I admitted that it was indeed a good time to be relaxing, I wasn’t ready to buy into any magical watch theories. I replaced the battery, but it still kept quitting on the occasional weekend. I took it to a jeweler to be repaired, and he suggested that the spring holding the battery in place was simply loose and needed to be tightened. That sounded like a good rational explanation, so I had him do that.

It didn’t make a difference. It quit on me the very next weekend, and what’s more, it started quitting on me when I went camping. I was doing two or three weekend campouts a year in Central Texas back then, and sure enough, within an hour of arriving at the campsite, the watch would quit on me. That was fine. It was a relaxing campout. I shouldn’t be worried about time anyway, so I left it in the car. Invariably, it would start working again on the drive home. Still, my rational mind was satisfied with the heat and humidity explanation.

Then it went missing.

I was on a business trip to SIGGraph. I was working at Autodesk at the time, and every other year I went to this conference that was half technical folks and half graphical artists. I could attend a presentation on vector compression and walk across the hall to see interactive, three-dimensional art. For someone like me who was equal parts math-geek and visual artist, it should have been more of a vacation than a business trip. But this time, early on the first day, I noticed that my watch was no longer on my wrist.

I had been checking email on my laptop earlier in the day, and I tend to take my watch off when I’m typing. To keep track of it, I would usually set it on the open laptop so that I would be forced to put it back on before closing up. Maybe I did something different that time. Maybe I set it on the table. Maybe I tried to put it in a pocket and missed. Or maybe the watch just made a jump for it.

I stopped by the show’s administrative office and registered it with their lost and found, but then I put it out of my mind and stopped worrying about the time. I stayed out late. I ate dinner with random people I had met at the conference. I ran into one of our executives and invited him to join me and some of my coworkers for lunch. I wandered the halls and found parts of the show I had never known existed. Sure, I missed a few presentations that I had circled in the program book, but I enjoyed that show more than any other SIGGraph before or since.

I stopped by the admin office each morning, but they never had the watch, nor did they ever call. I checked out of my hotel the last day, made one last sweep through the trade show floor, and finally started thinking about time again. I found myself looking at the clocks in the building, aware that I would have to leave soon to catch my flight home. Then, as my last stop before heading out to the taxi stands, I went to the admin office one last time. Sure enough, someone had turned in my watch mere moments before. It was still working, showing me the correct date and time. It seemed like it was taunting me for not believing in it.

I was a lot more forgiving of its idiosyncrasies after that. When it stopped on the weekend or on a camping trip, I merely set it aside for a few days and picked it up when it was time to start moving again. We had reached an understanding of sorts, and I was happy to let that go on for another year or so.

Then my dad got sick. It was cancer. He battled it out for two years, and I made a few trips out to visit him in the dry Arizona desert, sometimes even stopping off for a day going to or from my job in California. Sure enough, on every visit, my watch stopped working. I didn’t worry about the time. Instead I savored it. Those moments were both fleeting and priceless.

Eventually, my father lost his battle with cancer. I was back home when it happened. It was a Monday afternoon in August. I sat down that evening at my computer, laid my watch across the top of the keyboard, and wrote a blog post that eventually became his eulogy. The watch stopped fifteen minutes after I posted that entry.

The watch never started again. It’s been almost eight years, and it still sits frozen on my desk. I have bought other watches since then, but I never made another attempt to revive that one.

So that’s the true story of my magical watch. I remain a scientist at heart, but I can offer no rational explanation for the many coincidences I had with that watch. Instead, I am left only with the lesson it taught me. Don’t worry about the time. Treasure it.

Review: Hounded, by Kevin Hearne

This one kept popping up in my Amazon “also bought” lists, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It’s an urban fantasy with ancient Irish gods, fairies, and druids fast forwarded to the twentieth century which has picked up its share of modern supernatural guys along the way.

The protagonist is a druid named Atticus. Well, that’s what he’s calling himself these days, since not many folks in modern Arizona can handle his original name from sometime in the BC range. He runs an occult bookstore and tea shop, selling crystals and tarot cards to the wannabes and the occasional arcane text to the real practitioners. His lawyers (a vampire and a werewolf) keep him out of trouble – or at least try – but there’s not much they can do about his god problems.

And what would those be? Well, it seems he stole a sword in an epic battle a few thousand years ago, and its self-proclaimed “rightful owner” has been hunting for it ever since. Now those efforts have shifted into high gear, and Atticus is getting tired of hiding. Throw in a few witches and the occasional incarnation of Death (some sexy, some not so much), and it’s a regular menagerie of the supernatural.

By and large, I liked it, and I might continue reading the series. I suppose my only complaint is that the magic seemed too easy. That may just be the result of this druid’s thousands of years of practice, but for just starting into the series, he was a little too accomplished for my taste. It’s not that I require all my magical heroes to start off as neophytes, but it’s nice seeing them stumble and survive during those early years. It makes them seem more human rather that arrive as demigods on page 1.

Review: My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland

The title on this one really grabbed me, and I just dove in. It’s a first person account of a young Louisiana woman who wakes up in the hospital after a night of heavy drinking only to discover that she’s now a zombie. Well, she doesn’t realize it right away, but as her new job at the county morgue brings into contact with delicious brains, she starts to figure it out.

She’s not the shambling, mindless kind of zombie. Nope, as long as she gets some brains on a regular basis, she can pass for one of the living. And so she begins her new life, working at the morgue and building up a stash of, er… brain food, but she is also dealing with her old white trash life with a drunk father, and drugged-out shit of a boyfriend, and three more years left on probation for a car she didn’t actually steal in the first place.

But how did she become a zombie in the first place? And what’s going on with all these strange murders in town? And OMG! What happened to my stash of brains?!!

So, it was a fun ride, and I really liked our protagonist. It was also a pretty good mystery, trying to figure out how she became a zombie and how the murders tied into it all. About the only thing I had trouble with was the rather effective descriptions of the taste and texture of human brains. Suffice it to say, I won’t be eating any tapioca soon.

There’s a sequel out, and I may give it a look as well.

Review: Cold Days, by Jim Butcher

This is #14 in the Dresden Files series, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it for over a year. Combine that with the fact that the last couple of books (particularly #12, Changes) were so mind-blowingly awesome, and you can imagine that this one came in with some pretty high expectations to meet. It did pretty well, but it fell just a little short of meeting those expectations. Had it been just some random book by another author, I’d probably be raving all about it. As it is, I find myself bouncing between loving it and feeling a little disappointed in it. Or maybe that’s just the post-high blues settling in.

So, what can I say about a book and series with so many big reveals without actually spoiling it? A friend and I were jokingly messaging each other while reading it, saying things like, “Just wait until Harry and some other character do that thing in the place… you know, with the other guy.”

So yeah… it’s kind of hard to say much without getting all spoilerific, but here’s my best attempt at being specific enough to review it without being so specific as to spoil it.

While the first eleven books were about Harry’s adventures as Chicago’s only professional wizard and all the complications that entails, book #12 (Changes)… well, you know, changed things. Book #13 was mostly about the aftereffects of that and attempting some notion of recovery.

Cold Days picks up after that and shows Harry settling into something of a new role. Then he gets his first job in that new role, and it’s a doozy. In fact, it’s virtually impossible. But Harry’s life has never been as simple as presenting him with a tough problem, so it all gets much more complicated with struggling loyalties, questionable allies, plots within plots, and a world-ending timebomb ticking away. And of course, Harry saves the day with his usual wit and well-earned angst. The ending was bittersweet, with victory being filled with loss, but when did Harry every have a truly happy ending?

About the only nit I have to pick was that Butcher did a bit of preaching in the middle of the book. It happened to be a message I wholeheartedly agree with (i.e. homosexuals are OK, and even if you disagree you should adopt a live and let live approach), but it kind of stuck out from the surrounding material as the author preaching at us rather than Harry Dresden dishing out his own irreverent attitude. It did not blend in with the rest of the story and felt kind of tacked on. If Jim Butcher really wants to communicate that message, he would be better off writing a book where he showed it to be true rather than taking a five-minute break to hit us up with a public service announcement.

Still, it was good to see many of the old gang, but we didn’t see everyone. The world has certainly changed since Changes, and not all for the better. Mostly though, Cold Days revealed more about the dark subtle forces moving through the world and set up the shape of the background conflict for the next several books. I’m sure there will be diversions and unrelated struggles, but I think this set up the main storyline for the next dozen books.

I just hope that the next book picks up the storyline in short order and not two years later… which coincidentally is also when I wish the next book would come out, i.e. in short order.

*taps at veins*

Gotta get more Dresden!

Review: Texas Gothic, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

This is a standalone ghost hunting story by the author who also did the Maggie Quinn series…

A pair of disclaimers: I’m not really the target audience of this book (since I’m not a YA girl). Perhaps countering that, though, I have something of a fan-boy crush on the author since I think she’s a fabulous panelist. If you ever get to see her at a convention, give her a listen.

I liked the book fairly well, but… since comparisons to her other work are inevitable… I didn’t like it as much as I liked her Maggie Quinn books. For some reason, I did not find this book’s Amy Goodnight to be as engaging as Maggie Quinn, and a lot of that boiled down to the narrative voice. I’ll at least grant her this much, considering that both books were written first person from the POV of an 18-19 year old girl, their narrative styles were noticeably different. I guess I just liked Maggie’s voice better.

The other thing that set me against the book from the start was the subject matter. It’s a ghost story. While Maggie is off fighting demons and closing off interdimensional portals, this story is about a ghost haunting a Texas ranch. It was well done, and the ghostly interactions were not overdone, but real life “ghost hunters” annoy the shit out of me. No offense to you personally if you’re one of them, but I have a hard time not crying bullshit on them. As such, I was not primed to enjoy a ghost story.

Now, having said that, it was well done and believable, not so much because the character believed, but because the character did not want to believe. She acknowledged that yes, it could very well be a true ghost out there causing problems, but she did not want that to be true. That was enough to quiet my inner skeptic enough to go along for the ride.

And it was a fun ride. There were heroes and villains, lust and greed, real danger, and real consequences. It was not just a scary weekend listening to stairs creak. It was a little adventure that actually got to the bottom of things.

So, I can actually recommend it to others, but given my pre-existing annoyance with things ghost-related, I probably would not have recommended it to myself.

Urban Fantasy: Where Be Dragons?

The urban fantasy genre has no shortage of fantasy creatures. They have wizards, fairies, trolls, demons, giants, werewolves, and perhaps a dozen flavors of the undead. They have virtually all the magical beings from high fantasy, but… where are the dragons?

For that matter, where are the unicorns, gryphons, mermaids, basilisks, centaurs, and ents? I can’t claim to be an expert on urban fantasy, but I’ve read a few dozen, and so far, the magical creatures seem to be limited to those who can put on a pair of shoes and walk among us.

In fairness, that’s almost required by the genre since the fantastic part of the world is usually hidden away, and since a vampire can walk into a nightclub more secretly than a forty-ton dragon, things tip towards the vampires and their two-footed friends.

There are certainly exceptions, but the ones I can think of almost don’t qualify as “urban fantasy”. The Harry Potter novels had dozens of truly fantastic creatures far beyond humans with prosthetic foreheads. (Oops, sorry, wrong genre!) But I’m not sure Harry Potter qualifies as urban fantasy. It’s not that it violates rule #12 of the urban fantasy code. It just doesn’t have the same vibe to me.

But if we are to stick with the rule that the fantastical elements of urban fantasy must remain hidden from the mundane world, couldn’t we still sneak in a few dragons? It would be hard to keep one in Chicago, but I can think of a number of lowly populated areas they might hide.

The national park system would make excellent hunting grounds, and if they were ever spotted by some random hiker? Well, ma’am, we think it was a bear attack, though we never did find the body. If they restrict their flight to nighttime (or at least during camping season), who knows how long they could remain a secret, especially if they were able to employ magical powers to help hide them. (This might go far in explaining some of the wildfires in recent years.) Go worldwide, and there are plenty of places that dragons might find more hospitable than humans.

Given how little we see of our vast oceans, mermaids would have an easy time hiding out. They might even enjoy teasing our submarines. Centaurs and ents would find suitable homes in our forests, and the ents might even talk a few developers out of their plans. Basilisks would hunt as easily as dragons, and unicorns are well known for their invisibility to all but virgins. If I’m to believe the statistics, they should be safe as long as they stay away from grade schools.

Then again, these remote locations are hardly urban, now are they? Could you keep a small dragon in the city? What about mermaids living in the town lake or ents in the city park? And are unicorns really that invisible to the impure? I don’t know, but it would be cool to see an author try it.

I’m not saying that I require my urban fantasy to branch out to ents or dive into the realm of mermaids. They’re still good stories as they are. However, I am saying it would be nice to explore an imaginative world that is populated by more than vampires, zombies, and werewolves.