Having surprised myself by enjoying the two Alex Price books (three and four in the InCryptid series, if you're taking notes) more than I did those which featured his sister Verity (books one and two), I wasn't entirely thrilled to see the series return to its original heroine. That's not to say I didn't enjoy all four, so I was hardly going to keep away when 'Chaos Choreography', the fifth in the series, returned control to Verity Price, now back on the west coast with family after her near death experience in 'Midnight Blue-Light Special'.
However, while I didn't get quite what I expected or wanted (which was a solid introduction to the rest of the family back home), I did find that I liked this one more than I thought I would. It's the best plotted Verity Price novel yet and it does expand her circle somewhat too. Those like me who are waiting for an Antimony Price book will be disappointed to find that Verity and Alex's younger sister hardly appears in this one, merely introducing some more enticing detail to her character.
The plot point that steals Verity, and so our focus, away from the Price family on the west coast is a call from her 'other' family, the producers of 'Dance or Die', the reality TV show in which her dancing alter-ego, Valerie Pryor, competed at a time in which she felt she still had a shot at a dancing career. They're putting together an 'all-star season', in which the top four contestants from each of the five seasons thus far will return to battle it out, a tournament of champions, if you will. So, just as Verity thought she was out, Valerie is pulled back in.
Half of me cringed at discovering this direction for the plot, because it suggested unending bitchiness off-stage and unending boredom on it, but Seanan McGuire is a talented writer who's able to make worlds, which we might not want to visit in real life, engaging when employed as the background for a mystery. And, you'll not be surprised to discover, there's a mystery a-brewin' on the lot of 'Dance or Die', whose title becomes more and more appropriate as time goes by.
I like how long it take the mystery to fully become apparent, even if that isn't mirrored by a similar care to how it's finally solved. Partly, this is because Verity, who has found that her family's calling to support the cryptid population of the world is more up her alley than she would previously have admitted even to herself, is seriously out of dancing shape and it takes extra effort to get back to a level that will sustain her on the show. There are also a few more reasons why the first couple of deaths aren't immediately noticed, but that way lies spoiler territory and I'll happily let you discover those plot points yourselves.
Let's just say that, if Verity wasn't working even harder than her fellow competitors (friends and enemies alike, some of whom are, of course, cryptids in disguise) just to maintain the appropriate standard for the stage, she soon finds herself investigating a string of murders in her non-existent spare time. There's no way she can do this alone and her husband Dominic (yes, we missed the wedding while we were having fun in Oz with her brother Alex), can only do so much under a false identity of his own, David Laflin.
So, even if we're spending most of our time with Verity's dancing family rather than her real one, some of her actual family come along for the ride and, if that still doesn't mean Antimony, it does at least mean Grandma Alice, who, because of the amount of time she's spent in alternate dimensions, is able to show up as Verity's punk rock sister, Elle. I had a blast with Alice/Elle and wonder if McGuire will continue to alternate the series between Verity and Alex or whether she'll give some of the other key players a shot. I've been waiting for the Antimony book, but I'll happily wait longer on that if it'll mean a Grandma Alice novel instead. This is one glorious family, all of whom deserve their shot in the spotlight.
And, being very careful indeed to avoid a humungous spoiler, they may well get that shot sooner than we think because of the way this book ends. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but I will tell you both that the rapid fire conclusion was a notably underwhelming end to the mystery and that how it all wraps up is a real game-changer for the InCryptid series. I'm fascinated to see where McGuire takes it next but, sadly, I've finally caught up as 'Magic for Nothing' isn't out yet and so I have no InCryptid novel to read next month. Fortunately this is McGuire's second series; her first, featuring October Daye, is ten books in; and I have all of those ready to go, because I've been to enough conventions where she's been a Guest of Honor to pick them all up and have her sign them. So, let's switch to October in January instead!
Before we press pause on the InCryptid books though, I will say that their quality improved pretty much throughout. I liked the first book, 'Discount Armageddon', but it had a lot of things to introduce and that work succeeded at the cost of a surprising story. The second book, 'Midnight Blue-Light Special', having an established universe to play in, was much less predictable and I found it more enjoyable. With a shift in lead from Verity to Alex, the same thing happened: book three, 'Half-Off Ragnarok', worked really well as an introduction and less well as a story, but its sequel, 'Pocket Apocalypse', was a lot more fun and a lot more innovative. This book is likely to be seen as a pivot rather than a novel, because of what it will mean to the series, but it works really well as a stand-alone, perhaps better than any of its predecessors, again with the major caveat of the cheap ending.
I also liked how McGuire was able to pull on so much of the cryptid universe that she had built over the course of this series to flavour the background. For instance, if Verity didn't have enough to do with her newly revitalised dancing career and a string of murders, there's a fascinating subplot that speaks to the depth of what McGuire has created in the InCryptid books. By the way, I'm not just talking about the fact that the cast of characters include a chupacabra and an ukupani, or Hawaiian shapeshifter whose animal form is a shark. I'm not even talking about the opening chapter that involves a plesiosaur in a reservoir. I'm talking about dragons.
Brenna Kelly, the host of 'Dance or Die', is a dragon princess, that name given to female dragons when nobody had a clue that they were actually female dragons. It's simply been that long since there was a male dragon around, but Verity found William underneath New York in the first InCryptid book and he continues to resonate. You see, dragon princesses are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, a quirk which means that they can have daughters forever but can't have a son without the involvement of a male dragon. Knowing that none exist means a fatalistic acceptance of a long line of daughters but, now that one is found, that fatalism is gone, replaced by a burning desire to gain access to William or, at the very least, his future male offspring.
This is a glorious thing to my way of thinking. Sure, McGuire brought in a dragon to her story, but that's nothing new. What's new is that she re-invented that species in an imaginative way and realised that the situation that she'd placed it into had meaning. Rather than forget about it, she continued to extrapolate how that situation evolves in the background of a real story and that I adore. I wonder how that subplot will continue to evolve during future InCryptid books and how other cryptid populations will evolve and grow because of events that we read about. I can see a societal change in gorgons, for instance, and after 'Pocket Apocalypse', the cryptid population of Australia is due for a real paradigm shift.
Circumstances have meant that I'm writing this review a couple of months after finishing the book, but it makes me want to leap back into it and its predecessors and, because book six is months away, rail at one of the more prolific writers of modern fantasy for not having 'Magic for Nothing' and at least half a dozen more InCryptid books ready to go. Can't she write one a month? She doesn't need to sleep, right? There are readers a-waitin'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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