REVIEW: Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire
SYNOPSIS:Verity Price fits in her family’s dealings and study of “cryptids” in between her dreams of being a ballroom dancer. Too bad the monsters and a monster hunter have other ideas for Verity’s aspirations…
PROS: Strong and clear first-person narration by an interesting character.
CONS: The Cryptid universe feels a tad crowded in ecological terms; a couple of plot beats, especially at the beginning, feel off; unsure about the leading male counterpart character to Verity.
VERDICT: McGuire starts yet another interesting urban fantasy series.
Non-human sentients and nonsentient ‘monsters’ (Cryptids) stalk the streets of the Big Apple, New York City. Verity Price wants to mainly engage in her dance career but the family business of dealing with cryptids leads her to discover that the population of Cryptids, especially young female ones, is being thinned out. Is it the agent of the self-professed monster hunting Covenant that Verity’s family broke away from years ago? Or is it something much, much worse, something that might threaten cryptids and humans alike? Something thought extinct?
This is not the plot of a bizarre episode of the TV show Sanctuary, but rather Discount Armageddon, the start of a new urban fantasy series, Incryptid, by the prolific and popular Seanan McGuire. Despite the superficial resemblance, Discount Armageddon takes place in a distinct urban fantasy universe very different than the TV show. Verity Price is a would-be dancer who in between her dancing career is on an extended visit to New York City from her family’s home in the Pacific Northwest to study and aid the local cryptid population. A few generations back, her family broke away from a secret society of monster hunters called the Covenant, and now (mostly) tries to make contact and common cause with cryptids that can co-exist with humanity. Things like the basilisks, however, are another matter entirety.
What does Verity’s interest and talent for dancing have to do with any of this? Well, as Verity points out, her dancing training and experience are also very good training for hand-to-hand combat. (Ballroom Dancing butt-kicking for the win!) Verity is an interesting character in an interesting family. The novel is written in first person, so we get a tight focus on Verity as a character. She’s witty, complex and extremely appealing to the reader. I can’t imagine how she would exist or be written in a pre-Buffy era, but she feels and acts natural now. I am not sure why Verity does work at the dive she does rather than using her dancing skills to teach, but it does allow us to meet a variety of cryptids at length, since it’s owned and operated by same. Oh, and she loves free running, which makes sense for an athletic young woman who dances. Some of the best sequences are her circuit on the “overland route”, as she calls it.
Although there are monstrous cryptids for Verity to square off against, Discount Armageddon for the most part focuses on those sentient cryptids, so that we get them as characters rather than faceless monsters. And I did enjoy the variety of characters wo whch we are introduced. I especially liked (one might even say crushed on) the beautiful, geeky, dark haired Sarah. Even if her species (the cuckoo) might have insect-origins. And is telepathic. And I liked the variety of other cryptids that we see, too. From Dave the bogeyman owner/manager of Dave’s Fish and Strips, to Carol, Candy and the other staff members of the club, to the other cryptids that Verity encounters in and around Manhattan. And I should not forget the Aeslin mice who live in Verity’s apartment. While they are intelligent sentient mice, even my reading of Mouseguard did not prepare me for the hilarity of the Aeslin mice.
This is an urban fantasy, although the touches of non-scientific, “magical” aspects to the cryptids and their world are relatively light. The novel’s universe has a patina and veneer of scientific plausibility for the most part (the appendix with a list of cryptids gives them all linnaean taxnomic names for example). However, some of the abilities of some of the cryptids is clearly not explainable by modern science. And there are intimations of literal Hell and otherworldly dimensions.
The action scenes are with one exception, one beat, entertaining and well done. The highlight of these for me is a sequence where Verity has her reluctant partner act as D.J. for her mp3 player so that she can use the music as soundtrack as a beat to fight their opponents. I was a bit surprised Verity doesn’t pack more firepower than she does, especially when she heads into known-dangerous environments and situations. I suspect this was an authorial choice so that we could see Verity’s abilities at hand to hand combat. I was willing to let it slide as a reader.
The writing in general is very good. I loved the quotes from Verity’s relatives at the beginning of each chapter. They helped established the mindset of the Price family and some of them are extremely funny. Also, the one sentence descriptions regarding Verity’s location when the chapter begins is useful and sometimes indicates just how much trouble Verity is in now. Starting each new chapter with these two was always a treat.
With all of these positives, the novel is a lot of light fun that reads quickly. This is the sort of novel that would be perfect for readers looking for a changeup after dreary, weighty, serious fare. A palate cleanser, if you will.
What didn’t work for me? A couple of things. First is an ecological complaint. The Cryptid universe is awfully, awfully crowded — full of species that mankind in the main reputedly has no contact with whatsoever. It reminds me of the old White Wolf World of Darkness, which at one point had over a hundred varieties of supernatural creatures running around in the night. I understand and studied narrow ecological niches, but it somewhat strained my credulity that all of the cryptids mentioned in the novel are simply hidden from humanity. Another thing that didn’t work for me was a few of the early beats in the story. Verity’s handling of the ghoul at the beginning of the novel didn’t seem to fit. Certainly, her family is anti-Covenant, but I would have thought even that would have taken a back seat to a creature that had killed over a dozen people. Maybe the ghoul was a poor choice of creature to start the novel. I let that concern recede into the background in my mind, true, but in writing this review and looking over my notes–its a glaring tonal problem to me. Finally, although I really liked Verity and many of the other supporting characters, Dominic didn’t feel right as a character. He felt like he was completely and utterly out of time and that just didn’t make sense. Even raised by a secret society, it was hard to envision how a character who felt more like Solomon Kane in attitudes, speech and manner than a modern day man came to be. He makes a good contrast to Verity, true, but I kept wondering just how that happened.
Discount Armageddon is ultimatley entertaining, light and fun. I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy, but given McGuire’s popularity, I couldn’t resist trying this for myself and despite my reservations, was pleasantly surprised. When the novel hit on all cylinders, it engaged me well.
Filed under: Book Review
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