“So you’re not going to go to law school? What do you want to do then?”
“… I wanna DANCE!”
- Dazed and Confused
Now, you might be wondering what the punch line from a 1993 teen comedy has to do with the first book in the latest urban fantasy series from New York Bestselling Author™ Seanan McGuire. It’s simple: all her protagonist, Verity Price, wants to do is be a professional ballroom dancer. Despite being raised as a cryptozoologist, trained in hundreds of ways to identify, capture, negotiate with, deal with, and even kill monsters, her true calling involves slinky dresses and the Argentine Tango. Under the cover identity of “Valerie Pryor,” she even had a respectable run on the reality show Dance or Die.
So here she is, a ballroom dancer who works as a cocktail waitress at Dave’s Fish and Strips in between competitions, handling New York’s cryptid “problems” whenever they rear their ugly (and not-so-ugly) heads. She’s having fun, so what could possibly go wrong? Hint: EVERYTHING.
It starts when Verity runs into Dominic De Luca, operative for the Covenant of St. George. See, unlike Verity’s family, which believes in peacefully coexisting with the cryptids of the world whenever possible, the Covenant are monster hunters, who believe the only good supernatural beastie is a dead one. If the Covenant is in town, that means there’s trouble afoot, and blood (or ichor, or sap, or whatever) will flow. Dominic seems like a reasonable sort, but Verity doesn’t trust him any further than she can throw him from a roof.
Her fears seem to play out as she realizes that local cryptids are vanishing - some murdered, some just plain disappeared. There are weird serpentine humanoids in the sewers, and the possibility of a dragon (supposedly extinct) sleeping somewhere in the vicinity. Now Verity has to team up with a man she doesn’t dare turn her back on, find a creature which shouldn’t exist, and save the city’s cryptids, all without missing her next ballroom competition.
What can I say? This book is absurdly entertaining. McGuire’s populated her version of New York with a whole host of bizarre and fascinating creatures, drawn from mythology and folklore and updated to fit a modern ecosystem. You have your traditional beasties: boogeymen, ghouls, gorgons, lamias, tanukis and so on. And then you have the species developed specifically for this series, like the telepathic Johrlac and the Aeslin mice. (Okay, side note: the Aeslin mice are awesome. Sentient, vocal, and religiously dedicated to those they serve, they straddle the border between adorable and annoying, with a side order of hilarious. Like Reepicheep on the good drugs.) The result is a weird and fascinating city chock-full of the bizarre and well-hidden. (One can argue that this is the series into which Seanan threw all of the mythological critters she couldn’t fit into the Fae-centric setting of her Toby Daye books, and given how much she likes myth and folklore, I wouldn’t bet against it…)
Let’s talk about Verity Price. Monster hunter. Cryptoologist. Problem solver. Cocktail waitress. Reality show contestant. Ballroom dancer. Some of these things wouldn’t seem to mesh well with the others, but it’s all quite logically explained through the course of the book. Apparently, it’s possible to reconcile Verity’s dichotomous roles better than you’d expect, especially where the talents used in dancing relate well to kicking monster butt and vice versa. She’s fast, feisty, and fearless: always a good combination in an urban fantasy heroine, and she actually knows how to handle herself in impractical footwear. All of these traits rank her pretty highly on my list of urban fantasy heroines as a result. She also has great chemistry with her newest ally/enemy, Dominic, who does a good job of being a likeable antagonist on the verge of changing allegiances.
The story is fast-paced and energetic, and McGuire adeptly handles the mixture of action, mystery and humor. The world building is solid, the plotting is strong, and the characters are believable. The only problem I can find with this book is that Verity, as a first person narrator, sometimes comes off as a little shallow: if it doesn’t relate to dancing or monsters, it doesn’t seem to affect her. She’s also big on repetition, making sure that we never forget about her love of dancing or that time she spent on Dance or Die. However, these are minor flaws in an otherwise excellent book. McGuire lays the groundwork for a much larger universe (one already seen in assorted short stories elsewhere) filled with dozens of strange mythological species and a sprawling clan of potential protagonists. I can’t wait to see what’s next, now that Discount Armageddon has opened the floodgates for stories about the Price-Healy family and the cryptids they deal with.
If you’re looking for something in the urban fantasy genre, something with plenty of action, a bit of humor, and an approach that doesn’t feature sexy werewolves or sparkly vampires or angst Fae, this is it. It’s not the deepest or most complex of books, it’s not epic or world-changing, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and a guilty pleasure.
(Reviewer note: I’ve known Seanan McGuire for many years, so I’m even harder on her books than I would be on an author I didn’t know. Rest assured that if I’d had any real problems with this book, I’d have pointed them out. Take this as you will.)
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at www.michaelmjones.com. His anthology, Scheherazade’s Facade, is slated to come out later this year.