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Imaginary Numbers
InCryptid #9
by Seanan McGuire
DAW, $7.99, 448pp
Published: February 2020

Seanan McGuire's InCryptid series reaches book nine and it continues to get better and better as it runs on. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that McGuire, who wrote well when she started out, has got to the point that she could write a list of notes for a convention panel and it would come out naturally smooth and gripping. Writing seems to be akin to breathing for her nowadays and she does about as much of it.

Another is the fact that, unlike her Toby Daye series, she expands this one by telling it with multiple voices and the characters who get the focus get more and more interesting. I liked 'Discount Armageddon', which started the series off in style, but Verity Price has easily become my least favourite character in the family. I liked her brother Alex more when he took over for the third and fourth books, but found myself waiting throughout for the turn of younger sister Antimony, which arrived with book six. After three novels with Annie, it's Sarah Zellaby's time in the spotlight and she's undeniably the most fascinating lead yet.

You see, adopted cousin Sarah isn't even a human, though she looks like one. She's Johrlac, a cuckoo in common parlance, and she's more like a telepathic parasitic wasp in biology. Cuckoos are dangerous apex predators and the only cryptid species that the Prices tend to kill on sight. However, Sarah caught a break by being brought up by Angela Baker, a rejected cuckoo who's part of the Price family through marriage: her daughter Evelyn married Thomas Price and gave birth to the three previous leads in this series.

Because there are so few of them, because they're killed quickly and because they kill each other if they end up in the same territory, we don't know too much about cuckoos. This novel rectifies that by exploring everything it can and it does it in a suspenseful manner. The whole series is about exploring cryptids and we learn about the cuckoos' origins, history, anatomy, culture, goals and, crucially, their maturation cycle, which is an odd thing to focus a novel on but you'll understand when you dive into this one.

As you'll remember from a much earlier book (holy crap, was it as far back as 'Midnight Blue-Light Special'?), Sarah stepped in to save a particular day in spectacular style and severely damaged herself in the process. After a brief origin story to explain how Sarah become part of the extended Price family, we leap in after her five years of recovery are hopefully complete. The test is for her to travel, solo, from home in Ohio to the Price family compound in Portland, OR.

That she successfully does so isn't a spoiler. That she realises on arrival in Portland that there's a cuckoo working the airport shouldn't count as one either, because that's the beginning of where this book is going to take us. That this other cuckoo comes for apparent revenge after Sarah beats her in a bathroom fight is almost a given. But I'll quit there, even if the blurb on the back cover goes further, because there are a couple of excellent twists here that you deserve to experience yourself.

Needless to say, Sarah becomes the focal point for an important conflict and its scope isn't immediately obvious. We explore this conflict primarily from Sarah's perspective, which is great because she doesn't know much more about any of this than we do, so we discover a lot at the same time she does. When Sarah can't progress the story herself because she can't be in all places at once, her cousin Artie, takes over. He's a half-incubus who's been her best friend since she was ten and ought to be a lot more, if only the two of them would be honest about their feelings for each other.

It's great to see Artie again and for the author to provide him with depth, something he hasn't received thus far in the series proper (I realise from the one InCryptid short story in an anthology that I have read that he gets some opportunies in the ever-expanding list of such creatures that I really ought to track down). It's also great to be able to watch these characters grow up, because Sarah and Artie are more here than they've been because of the sheer passage of time in their universe as much as because McGuire gets better and better as a writer.

For those who want to know, there are a host of other characters showing up here for cameos or more substantial roles in the story. Annie is home, along with boyfriend Sam and vaguely adopted sorcerer James, so they do their part in what unfolds. Her parents are home too, as is Artie's sister Elsie. Very shows up briefly, but as a dream. The family's colony of Aeslin mice feature too because what would an InCryptid novel be without at least one such being included?

While I'm adoring this series period, one of the things that the author does with it that so impresses me is how she gradually builds a series arc as she goes. Each novel works well as a standalone story, but substantially adds to our knowledge of certain characters and, often, species, while moving things on in the series too. It's the result of very careful craft and McGuire does that very well indeed. Having been engrossed by this first novel with cousin Sarah, I can't wait for the second, 'Calculated Risks', due in another year.

Talking of series arc, this novel includes the now traditional bonus novella and that focuses very much on series arc. In fact, it doesn't tell much of a story itself, though it's a fun read; it seems to exist to set up things we can surely expect to read about later in the series. It focuses on one night in Michigan, as Annie, Sam and James stop off in Buckley Township, a family place going way back, for one night on the way to Portland, with Cylia the jink and Fern the sylph along for the ride. There, they eat in a cryptid bar called the Red Angel with Alice Healy, Annie's grandma, who, for reasons not entirely explained, looks as young as everyone else. This story is the link between 'That Ain't Witchcraft' and what's surely now to come for Alice. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in this series here
For more titles by Seanan McGuire click here

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