This is the fourth book in Seanan McGuire's InCryptid series and the second starring Alex Price and his Australian girlfriend, Shelby Tanner. I surprised myself by enjoying his first outing much more than the first two books, which featured Alex's sister Verity, the sort of kick-ass heroine I tend to gravitate toward. I'm even more impressed with this one, which makes me sad that we're going back to Verity for book five, 'Chaos Choreography'. Then again, it may just be that McGuire is getting better and better, in which case, bring it on!
Book three, 'Half-Off Ragnarok', was, in part, about how Alex and Shelby could become real boyfriend and girlfriend, given that neither of them had an obvious way of opening up to someone else about who they really are and what they really do behind their everyday personae. It's unsurprising that, once they had been forced into that, this book would explore Shelby's background. That means jetting off to Australia and I got a real kick out of the journey. After all, it's hard enough for us to get a toothpick onto a plane nowadays (the TSA got upset about my moustache wax on my last trip to England), so how can Alex and Shelby smuggle an arsenal into their carry-on so they can go fight werewolves down-under?
And Aeslin mice... I laughed aloud when six delegates from the talking mice colony which worships Alex's family wander surreptitiously around the aeroplane during the flight. I was happy to see that they would continue on in the story, even in a new continent, because an InCryptid book just wouldn't be the same without them. Perhaps they don't get to do as much as usual, though that is arguable, but they are still there, at least.
They're the only continuing characters from the previous book except for Alex and Shelby themselves, so the rest of the cast are made up of new folk. It's odd that we get to meet Shelby's family before the Prices, but I get the impression that Seanan McGuire wants to take us there too and constructed some of them in a rather reminiscent fashion. I've been wanting to meet Antimony Price for a while now, even if I realise that she's never going to live up to her billing, but Shelby's sisters serve that purpose in the meantime.
Those who have been following my reviews through this series will have flagged up my use of the word 'werewolves' three paragraphs up. I've consistently expressed my appreciation for how untraditional the monsters are in these books. While she has absolutely populated her series with a wide variety of cryptid lifeforms, McGuire hasn't seemed interested in plumbing the usual territory. We haven't seen hide nor hair of vampires or werewolves or zombies, instead concentrating on less clichéd creatures like gorgons and dragons (which mostly aren't remotely like you might imagine), let alone those that I hadn't heard of previously, like waheela and madhura.
Perhaps inevitably, McGuire trawls in some traditional Australian cryptids for this trip to Oz, but we don't get to see any drop bears or bunyip, just hear mentions of them. We do meet a yowie called Basil, though, and a wagyl plays a key part in proceedings at one point. However, the focal points of this book, before we even start the trip to Brisbane, are werewolves and they're not reimagined in any particularly innovative way. They are given some grounding in this world McGuire has created, as human beings infected with the lycanthropy-w virus, a form of therianthropic rabies that jumped the species barrier, but still these are stunningly routine monsters for this series, even if they're woven well into the paranoia of the world Alex finds himself flying into.
Just as Alex Price belongs to a family of cryptozoologists who have to play very safe indeed in order to avoid death at the hands of the Covenant of St. George, an organisation that the family left a couple of generations ago, Shelby Tanner and her family are also members of a secret cryptozoologist group, the Thirty Six Society, who have to work outside the usual legal boundaries. The similarity between the two, as far as secrets, was a great way to introduce a couple of characters who would become a real couple; but it needed something to move beyond a rather stunning plot convenience.
That's provided here by the mindset of the Thirty Six Society, who come across as a bunch of individuals masquerading as a group, a set of paranoid survivalists who merely happen to have a reason to stock up on armaments, hide out in secret compounds in the desert and blindfold the new fish so he won't know where he's going to meet his potential in-laws. They could easily have been too much, any one of them reminding of the usual wild character who gets thrown into a single support slot, but multiplied up to a scary degree. However, while they're all very capable at what they do, what works best is how broken they are as a unit and how they've lost track of their real purpose, which is buried by their own sheer bloodymindedness. The members of the Society grow as individuals and a team in this book and that's fascinating to watch, with Alex as our avatar in their midst.
This isn't just a cryptozoological soap opera though. There is a real plot waiting for Alex and Shelby in Brisbane and a real mystery for them to solve. It's notable that this aspect of these books has gotten better with each novel that passes and this fourth title is no exception. It's easy to guess but difficult to figure out the ins and outs of this one, which weave capably in and amongst the reveals and revelations. The trend is a good one, given that this series could so easily have become a monster of the week set-up in Scooby-Doo surroundings. McGuire thankfully refuses to let that happen and this is her best InCryptid novel yet.
There's little on the negative side. Alex's oh-so-convenient phobia is a little cheap, especially as it doesn't get to be as prominent as it's played up to be. I appreciated the actual Australian flavour, but would have liked more cultural clashes and local folklore. I'd also liked to have seen the Thirty Six Society interact with actual society more than they get the opportunity to do here, but I can see how that would be very difficult to actually accomplish. Maybe that can be reserved for future books.
Even if we're going back to Verity Price for 'Chaos Choreography', I'm sure that Alex and Shelby aren't going to remain on the backburner forever and I really hope they don't. I was surprised to find that I'm a bigger fan of them than I am the original stars of this series and, even if Verity will return to it with the hoped for emphasis, I hope even more that she won't just take it over. One day I want to read about Alex and Shelby getting married and how sparks fly when the two families meet for the first time. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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