Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire
As I mentioned in an earlier review, I’ve decided to have a proper look at Seanan McGuire (and that was before one of the latest books was shortlisted for a major award). At the urging of one of my readers, I’m going back to Discount Armageddon (DAW, 2012) and this first in the InCryptid series proves to be a good steer. At this point I need to wander slightly off the beaten track to think about why I tend to find urban fantasy such an unsatisfying subgenre. The answer, in part, is that the balance of the books tends to blur between conventional fantasy and romance. In itself, this is not a problem. I have no sensibilities to offend when it comes to different races or genders engaging in all the usual sexual activities and then some I might not have thought of (although there are few of those left after a long lifetime). Characters in books are free to do many of the things we might balk at, or find physically impossible, in the real world. That’s part of the fun of being a creative writer. But this subgenre has been tinged by the brush of romance so, to pander to a niche in the market not used to full-bore fantasy, particularly of the darker variety, the standard fantasy tropes are rather defanged and encouraged into the appropriate gender roles as the love interests. While this pandering may encourage sales to younger readers and women coming from the pure romance sector, it does nothing for older males like myself.
So as you start off in this series, we take as read there are lots of real animals out there that we foolish humans think are pure mythology. Yes, there really are dragons and unicorns (well, maybe). The problem is the religiously fanatical Covenant of St George. The mission they have chosen to accept is the extermination of all the animals that God neglected to save on the Ark. So if anything survived the flood, that was against God’s wishes and the Covenant could go round the countryside slaying dragons for all they were worth because that was doing God’s work. One small group splintered from the Covenant and they have set themselves up as protectors of all the strange creatures that don’t disrupt the ecosystem, i.e. start killing humans. After several generations, we now come to modern times with the young Verity Price making a name for herself as protector of Manhattan, put-upon waitress at a fairly seedy strip joint, and professional ballroom champion wannabe. Everything is going along moderately peacefully until the required sex interest from the Covenant arrives to do a survey. If he finds an infestation of mythological creatures, he’s required to call in the troops for a purge.
Why then am I more positively inclined to this book? Surely I’ve just described a set-up for the usual dismal swamp of urban fantasies. Well, we have to start with the book having a sense of humour. The majority of these books take themselves so seriously, they sag under the portentous certainty something terrible is likely to happen (leaving us deeply disappointed when we turn the pages). But this book is ultimately about sex, and the natural drive to get some and enjoy it. How can a reader not be beguiled by the idea of a group of mice announcing a religious festival which requires Verity to kiss the next man to walk through the door. Perhaps more importantly, when we do get some sex scenes, they are proper sex and not some chaste peck on the cheek. Yes, there are the usual complications of a couple with completely different approaches to the world who must find sufficient mutual tolerance to allow the coupling to occur. But this is just good fun. He’s just so straight-laced and she so, well, different. It’s all rather unlikely in an enjoyable way. For all we are thrust deep into a covert world of different beasties and bogeys, all the characters and “animals” emerge as strangely plausible. Even when we get into telepathy, the explanation for the evolution of the ability actually makes sense. So this is weird in every sense of the word. Discount Armageddon proves to have an exuberance which converted me to the cause. Indeed, that’s what makes the climax rather more exciting than usual. The bad guys are actually a real threat and are on the verge of triggering what might be a fairly devastating event. So the book nicely does go quite dark with many characters dying or suffering quite serious injury. This is not to say the book has any claim to greatness. It has flaws, e.g. it seems there are multiple dimensions including a literal version of Hell in which one of the family may be trapped (this seems counter to the general scientific approach to classifying the different species albeit not inconsistent with a “fantasy” world in which magic works). But for the most part, this is an unpretentious book that’s great fun to read and will not offend those of a male persuasion who like their fantasy relatively undiluted.