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Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

May 31, 2014 4 comments

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.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

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.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and written by Seanan McGuire:
Chimes at Midnight
Half-off Ragnarok.

Half-off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire

April 10, 2014 5 comments

Half-Off-Ragnarok-InCryptid--538638-9f2766385cef07881f7a

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.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

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.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and written as Seanan McGuire:
Chimes at Midnight
Discount Armageddon.

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