Smoke and Shadows is the first in a new series by Tanya Huff, following her highly recommended Vicky Nelson Mysteries. Those featured a female detective and her complex relationship with a vampire and assorted other supernaturals. It bears repeating that the first of those was written well before Buffy appeared on our screens. However it’s a fact that Buffy, Angel and similar television series have greatly increased the appetite for this kind of fiction. Some authors make oblique reference to that, others steer well clear. Here, Tanya Huff actively embraces the post-Buffy televisual landscape to great effect.
Tony Foster, a supporting character in the Vicky Nelson books, is now working as a production assistant on Darkest Night, a series featuring a vampire detective and his good-looking sidekick, filmed in Vancouver. Henry Fitzroy, Tony’s friend and the real immortal prince of darkness from the earlier series, watches this fakery with amusement from the sidelines. Huff continues to be a very funny writer, with wry asides on the realities of the television business and the practicalities of writing and filming a show on a tight budget. The vampiric propensities of writers come in for some affectionate teasing. She’s plainly done her research and treats genre television with pleasing affection, referencing the original incarnations of Star Trek, Bewitched, Babylon 5, Smallville and many others along the way. All this grounds the story firmly in the here and now, making it all splendidly credible.
Thus the intrusion of supernatural evil gains a solid believability when shadows thrown by sound-stage lights take on a life of their own. To complicate matters, the show’s special effects wizard turns out to be just that; a spell caster from another dimension who’s fled a merciless malevolence. Now the closed, self-absorbed world of a small production company becomes unnervingly claustrophobic. Huff has made clever choices here. With the initial reach of this intangible foe limited to the studio, the mystical remains tautly plausible. It’s easier to believe in dark goings-on that never make it out into the wider world than it is to maintain suspension of disbelief over monsters roaming the streets or destroying cities.
Here, using shadows as the first manifestation of Tony’s foe, Huff taps into that curiosity that surely everyone remembers from childhood, exploring the malleability and inconstancy of that visual echo of our movements on a sunny day. In the book the child’s half-fearful, half-eager desire for a shadow to start acting independently becomes reality, taking the reader back to a state of mind when all such things were possible. Then the inventive nastiness of Huff’s imagination creates a real frisson for the adult reader as she expands on that notion.
Tony must keep these shadows from escaping the studio, and ideally defeat the foe behind them. He’s an excellent choice for a new series hero now that Vicky Nelson has moved on. Putting Henry Fitzroy centre stage would have presented Huff with all the usual superhero problems: how to ensure the normal mortal reader can empathize with such a protagonist, and how to devise an enemy that really threatens someone with superpowers without going totally over the top. Tony is no such superman, but his experiences as a homeless street kid, as a gay man, and later on the periphery of Henry Fitzroy’s life, have given him credible survival skills, an instinctive wariness and an acceptance that the world isn’t the cozy place that so many people would like to believe. He’ll need all these skills and more to win through here.
He’ll also need allies. He has Henry, but vampires can only come out at night. Arra, the special effects wizard, has knowledge and skills that Tony needs, but she’s more concerned with saving her own skin. She’s certainly no Gandalf, as Tony comes to realize. Having opened a dimensional gate to get here and now finding herself pursued, what’s to stop her opening another? Arra’s an intriguing character, showing yet again the unobtrusive superiority of Huff’s writing. We can relate so well to her fear, evasions and outright lies. Then her matter-of-fact explanations of magic, of her old life, and of the evil pursuing her throw up abrupt barriers between her and the reader, reminding us that she really isn’t one of us.
As the story proceeds, the plot, the setting and the personalities involved reflect on each other, casting new light and depth. If we’re considering the nature of sorcerous power, we can see its counterpart in the absolute and sometimes arbitrary authority of directors and producers. Wizardly arrogance has its reflection in actorly egotism. All the characters, major and minor are drawn with admirable skill and use of telling detail to make them live and breathe. This background, the people involved and their essential natures all prove integral to the final resolution. At the centre of events, Tony certainly doesn’t walk away unscathed. This is no TV show where the script writers can hit the reset button at the end of the episode.