Half-off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire
Curiosity, it’s said, killed the cat. For whatever reason, it seems the cat has long had a reputation for exploring places where hidden dangers lurk to catch out the unwary with both Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare referring to this species trait. Of course, it’s easy to anthropomorphise and attribute human abilities to a wide range of animals who seem to share our interest in exploring the unknown, adding knowledge where there are gaps. But, for whatever reason, it’s obviously been a useful evolutionary characteristic. Just think, we’ve been able to develop useful things like the sharpened stick with which to defend ourselves and the cellphone to call for help when the stick breaks off as it hits the scales of the supernatural beast attacking us.
So here I am doing a small diversion from the reviewing path to have a look at Seanan McGuire writing under her own name rather than as Mira Grant. I’m starting with Half-off Ragnarok (DAW, 2014) which is the third InCryptid novel. I’ve not really read enough urban fantasy to be able to judge whether it’s unusual for a book in this subgenre, written by a woman, to feature a first-person male protagonist. So far, it’s been my experience the heroes tend to be female and quickly into romance mode when something hunky this way comes. This hero is somewhat geeky and, for all he’s on the verge of being maimed or eaten by various beasties, not terribly interested in females of his own species. This is not to say there have not been strong female characters in the two earlier books. They featured our hero’s sister, Verity Price. It’s just our hero has not yet been tempted romantically.
I’m therefore timing my dive into McGuire waters perfectly as our family devoted to cryptozoology briefly sequesters Verity away while she recovers from her exertions in the first two books. This leaves us with her brother, Alexander, who’s in deepest Ohio at the West Columbus Zoo. During the day, he runs the reptile house. The rest of the time is spent with the creatures of myth whose existence science has not yet come around to accepting. Life is relatively normal until the arrival of Shelby, an Australian specialist in big cats. Now there’s a crack in our hero’s armour to admit the possibility of amour. Except it’s a bit difficult to explain why she can’t always come with him, or even meet with his grandparents. She might be good with tigers and other large felines, but facing a gorgon might be disconcerting. You see, there always have to be reasons why the path of true love never can run smoothly.
So the relatively good news is that this is urban fantasy with a gentle sense of humour. Yes, there are murders, people are threatened, exposed to general danger, locked in burning buildings, stabbed, and so on. But the way in which it’s written manages to avoid this becoming a grim affair. For all bad stuff happens, there’s always the chance for a smile (albeit many of the jokes are at the expense of stereotypical assumptions about Australia and its women). This takes us out of the rut of urban fantasy and paranormal romance which tend to be rather po-faced about anything other than the romantic elements. There’s also a reasonable amount of characterisation which rings true, both among the humans and the mythological species around them. Balancing the need for privacy — it would be somewhat dangerous if humans were to discover you were actually a gorgon — against the need to earn enough money to maintain a lifestyle, is always going to be a challenge. So some degree of paranoia is understandable. The Price family is also under threat from the Covenant, an organisation with a rather final solution to the cryptid problem. So all the main characters have a reason for keeping a low profile. Except, of course, when a human turns up with petrifaction as the cause of death, there’s interest from the police which could prove a problem. I also quite like the departure from the clichéd norms of vampires, werethingies and fairies. There’s a reasonable amount of invention as to the different species on display and how they relate to each other.
That said, the plot hangs on an outrageous coincidence — not unlike many other books, I know — and although Shelby does prove moderately tough and adaptable, she’s really there just to be a helpful sidekick, i.e. as someone to be “loved” and rescued when the need arises. From a technical point of view, her presence is also expedient because, as an Australian, it allows our hero to infodump about local American species in his explanations to her. Although she’s less prominent, I thought Dee, the gorgon, was a more rounded character. It’s just she’s already married and so not available to our hero. I’m also less than convinced about the killer’s motives. While accepting he, she or it is dangerous and responsible for human, and some animal and bird, deaths, there’s considerable lack of clarity. The old, “you can’t expect killers to be terribly rational” schtick is getting frayed round the edges. This plot could have been better designed to give the killer a more coherent and plausible reason for the deaths. So, on balance, Half-off Ragnarok is slightly above average for urban fantasy but, in real terms, that’s not saying anything very complimentary.