Curiously nerdy posts.
Yesterday, I finished another book. It was yet another Urban Fantasy offering. I seem to like those a lot.
This time, it was Discount Armageddon, by Seanan Mcguire.
As it often works with me, I came across this title while adventuring one day in a book store. It was the title, moreso than the cover art, that led me to pick it up and look at it. What I read on the back was this:
Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night… The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity-and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…
There’s a lot of cute, witty lines in there. Not to mention some elements that sounded familiar, but mixed up with other stuff to look a little bit different. So I took a chance on it. Was it worthwhile?
What I liked: As hesitant as I am to use this tired old Hollywood executive kind of device, it’s useful here: this book basically feels like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets The Addams Family.” If you don’t really think that sounds interesting, then I pity you a little.
The difference, though, is that this Buffy doesn’t kill the monsters. She studies them, and works hard to make sure that the monsters she looks out for can coexist with humanity. One of the overarching themes of the book is that monsters shouldn’t have to die just because they exist, especially if they’re not actually hurting anyone. The main character, Verity Price, clashes over and over with Dominic, a man she meets who’s made to be a pretty classic monster hunter guy (yes, even down to the duster full of weapons) about this point. Why do they have to die because they’re different? Where do we draw the line between a bug bear, and a plain old bear? Both kill people. This is a morality question I REALLY, REALLY wish more fantasy would dare to ask and explore more often, given that all too often, monsters are made cannon fodder. Why? Because they’re monsters.
As someone who started reading the first Dragonlance novel, and then put it down to never read it again after one specific quote by one of the characters stating that massively killing goblins was okay, because they’re not people, I really appreciated reading a character whose first impulse wasn’t to kill the monsters she encountered.
And as for Verity? Well, she’s a great character. A strong, independent female lead, which admittedly isn’t half as rare in books as in other mediums, but always good to see regardless. The author lends her a really, really strong voice, which is oh so important in anything written in a first person POV. I can forgive a lot of other shortcomings if that voice is there, and this book has it in spades.
Another thing I really like was the variety of monsters. For a book centered around a badass girl studying monsters between dance competitions, there’s plenty of varieties shown here to keep us interested. And, brownie point, the author left out the boring ones that need a rest, like vampires and werewolves!* Instead, we get Boogeymen, Bugbears, Tanookis, Ghouls, Gorgons, and Cuckoos (nice X-men reference in this one). And while one of the central plot points is centered around dragons, the most cliche fantasy monster ever, she goes out of her way to add enough interesting and unconventional facets to that creature’s lore to make me not roll my eyes. And trust me, that’s not easy to do. I think more dragons have been slain by cliche writing than fantasy heroes, and could probably rant for an entire post on just that. Who knows? Maybe I will someday.
*I love these classic beasts as much as anybody, but if you’re going to use them, do something wildly different, or leave them alone! And I don’t mean make them glitter in the sun, either.
Lastly, I liked Verity’s family, although we only got to hear them in phone conversations, and not see them. A hero or heroine with a secret identity that they have to keep secret from their loved ones is a classic trope, and a fun one, but it doesn’t need to be used every time. It was nice to have a heroine with a family where it looked pretty obvious that she was actually one of the less weird ones. Her grandmother goes spelunking in the netherworld. She has an uncle who is half giant snake. She has another aunt who is a ghost. I made an Addams family reference for a reason, but I love The Addams Family, so that’s a compliment.
What I didn’t like: There were a few problems, though.
First and foremost, the plot sort of sputters to a weak finish, after a really strong start. The plot has reasonable stakes to it, and Verity meets peril in a variety of ways. But when we finally meet the people behind the plot to create havoc on Manhattan*, one of them was someone we met all of two chapters previously, and the other made no appearance before in the book, and was offered no reason to exist other than to twirl his mustache and cause trouble. I don’t even remember his name; I just remember he wears Brooks Brothers suits, and wears shoes too slick to use in a sewer. He goes down relatively easy, and is basically an afterthought to the plot. After the rest of the book was so careful to build its characters realistically, running into a two-dimensional one right at the end, that is also critical to the plot, was really jarring, and disappointing.
*New York City in general is as tired and cliche as a setting as Dragons are as a monster in fiction. Please. Give it time to breathe.
Another issue are the references. I’m a big fan of pop culture references in books, since I’m a sponge of the stuff myself. But something about the way this book used them seemed a tad bit off to me. I’ll touch on more of this in a future post, but I like to compare it to The Simpsons vs Family Guy.
The Simpsons is framed around thoughtful plots, funny stories, and other shenanigans that end up flavored by a topical pop culture reference here and there that almost always score a LOL. But it’s done in a way that gives the impression that most of the references used will at least be accessible to people watching the show decades from now. Sure, some of the jokes will fall flat over time, but it’s done in a way where it’ll be classical at best, and only a slight bump at worst.
Family Guy goes straight for your throat with casual, random asides (Like that time when…. *reference here*) that typically slant toward the 80s/90s crowds. It’s bombastic, hilarious, and I’ve laughed really hard at some of them. But that’s because I am their demographic. 20 years from now, I can see middle aged people showing it to their kids and telling them it’s hilarious, and their kids just sort of saying “Um… who is the Kool Aid Man, and why is him busting through a wall supposed to be funny?” It will date itself very quickly.
This book’s references gave me more of a Family Guy vibe. Although as a fanboy, I cannot speak ill of any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference (especially when that one actually explained a plot point quickly and easily).
Lastly, I felt the action scenes in this novel were generally kind of mediocre. It was difficult to keep track of who was doing what, although Verity’s explanations of some things made up for it somewhat. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement there.
The verdict: I give this book ****. By my standards, that means “It was very good, and good enough to read again.” I agree with this assessment, with a caveat. I’d be more than willing to read the sequel, but I’m not overly excited to do so. If I was, I’d drop everything, buy the sequel, and devour it too. I don’t have the urge with this. However, if I was in an airport, and went into the bookstore needing something to read on a flight, a book in this series would be a fantastic choice.
It’s good quality urban fantasy, with a strong lead, interesting ideas, and a great voice to it. Anyone who likes that sort of thing, check this book out. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
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