Alexander Price is a cryptozoologist, an expert at studying creatures which the real world considers mythological, but which he knows to be all too real. But unlike his sister Verity, who likes urban settings and hangs around with the more humanoid cryptids (as seen in the first two books of the InCryptid series), Alex specializes in reptiles and swamp-dwellers and other such critters.
Under the guise of a visiting researcher, he’s working for the reptile house of the West Columbus Zoo, while secretly masterminding a basilisk breeding program. He’s kinda sorta dating Shelby Tanner, an Australian who specializes in training big cats. You know, the sort who don’t use a litterbox and sleep on your head at night. And the current highlight of his assignment is discovering new breeds of fricken. (Frogs with feathers. No word on how they taste.)
And then one of his coworkers is killed. And all evidence points towards a cryptid with some form of petrification abilities. Sadly, that doesn’t narrow it down much. The basilisks are hibernating, there’s no evidence of stray cockatrices, and the local Gorgon community is both distrusting and disinclined to answer questions. But as a member of the Price-Healy family, Alex doesn’t just study cryptids, he’s obligated to protect and police them, by whatever means necessary. But as he investigates the possibilities, other bodies turn up. As well as evidence that suggests he’s a specific target. Now it’s personal.
Luckily, Alex has resources and a completely oddball family willing to help. And Shelby, surprise surprise, has secret talents of her own, and is happy to pitch in. Nothing says “date night” like braving a reclusive community of people with snakes for hair, right? But can they figure out who’s behind the rash of impromptu statuary before the public notices and b rings down the wrong sort of attention?
One thing that always amazes me about Seanan McGuire is how she can take a theme, and run with it. In this case, it’s finding multiple kinds of cryptid who all fight into the overlapping “snakes” and “things which petrify you” categories, and making them all seem completely reasonable, if a little irrational. (It roughly compares to that time Jim Butcher worked five different flavors of werewolf into a single book.) Watching her characters deal with such hazardous and bizarre things as basilisks and gorgons, lindworms and more, is kind of like taking a tour through a very deadly theme park made up of alternating parts awesome and terrifying. Come to think of it, that sums up this series quite nicely.
The InCryptid series tends to be a bit lighter, more whimsical, and somewhat more tongue-in-cheek than most of McGuire’s other work. While it takes the material seriously, there’s a fair amount of quirky nonsense and sly in-jokes which permeate the background and make this an entertaining, fast-paced, non-taxing sort of brain candy for the urban fantasy fan. Present are the much-loved Aeslin mice, for whom every event is a potential holiday or ritual, for instance. McGuire’s characters don’t always come off as the most complicated or deep, tending instead to revolve around a set of quirks and traits, sacrificing deep internal development for wry humor and on-the-fly adaptation. Alex is a cryptozoologist who likes weird critters and really isn’t sure how far to trust his girlfriend. He’s a decent guy with commitment issues and a colony of talking mice in his attic, and that’s all you really need to know. He doesn’t need a tragic backstory when he has a scientifically-reanimated Frankensteinian grandfather, and a grandmother who’s not even human. He doesn’t need a trenchcoat and sword when he knows the best way to counteract the glare of the cockatrice. He’s…well, almost an ordinary guy trapped in an extraordinary world.
In fact, that’s the real hook. Alex Price, for all his skills and training and knowledge, feels like the most normal guy in a completely bonkers setting, surrounded by things which shouldn’t exist and trying to keep half of them from eating the other half. When he’s negotiating how much time an eight-year-old girl can spend with her future husband the giant cobra, he feels like the straight man in a John Cleese movie. And that ability to stay cool is what serves him well.
The plot itself moves along quite cheerfully, one part mystery, one part urban fantasy. McGuire throws in enough red herrings and surprises that the outcome is never entirely certain, and the true identity of the bad guy(s) actually comes as a surprise. There’s elements of action, romance, and of course all the frogs with feathers you could ever hope to see in a book. There’s also something called a Church Griffin, described as “a breed of miniature griffin that basically combines the raven with the Maine Coon cat” and even though intellectually I know it’s a really bad idea, I still want one. Like, seriously.
Don’t go into this book looking for great literature or deep thoughts. Go into it because it’s slightly over-the-top fun, a genuinely entertaining good time, an urban fantasy that, despite the title, isn’t about the imminent end of the world. The best way to describe this is to say that McGuire writes for a wide audience, and this is an accessible series that doesn’t require a lot of commitment. Better still, this book effectively acts as a jumping-on point to those just coming in. Because of the change in lead from the first two books, it’s not necessary to have read them to know what’s going on. It helps, sure; for those who remember Cousin Sarah from Midnight Blue-Light Special, this does pick up on her story after the events of that book. But new readers can definitely check this out and be happy.
In short: All Hail the God of Scales and Silence! All Glory to the Science Rules of Science! Praise Unto the Book of Things With Stony Gazes!
Half-Off Ragnarok is available March 4th from DAW
Read an excerpt of the novel here on Tor.com
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.