Vivian Shaw has written an astoundingly accomplished debut novel. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Strange Practice is really good, a compelling, well-characterised novel with tight pacing and a great sense of humour. You should run, not walk, to get your copy now.
(Seriously. I’m not joking. It’s so good.)
Dr. Greta Helsing inherited a highly specialised medical practice. From her consulting rooms on Harley St., where she operates on a shoestring budget, she runs a clinic for the monsters that hardly anyone knows about. (She sees, for example, cases of vocal strain in banshees, flu in ghouls, bone rot in mummies, and depression in vampires.) Greta’s just barely making ends meet, but she’s living the life she’s always wanted. She’s making people’s lives—people who can’t easily access medical care anywhere else—better.
But when old family friend (and wealthy vampire) Edmund Ruthven calls her to look at a new patient, her life begins to get complicated. Sir Francis Varney, vampire, was attacked in his home by chanting men garbed as monks wielding strange blades coated in poison. Though he survives, and is on his way to recovery under Greta’s care (and Ruthven’s), this attack bears significant similarities to several (human) murders perpetrated by a so-far-uncaught serial killer stalking London. If the serial killer—or killers—have branched out into hunting the undead, that’s bad news for all of Greta’s patients, since they can’t very well rely on the police. Ruthven draws in August Cranswell, who works in the conservation department of the British Museum, to try to answer the question of who these maybe-monks are.
The answers lead them to a medieval monster-hunting cult. But when Greta is assaulted in her car by a blind, burned young man who nonetheless still seems able to see—a young man with a blue light in his eyes who tries to kill her—they realise that something more is at work. Together with another old family friend of Greta’s, Fastitocalon, and with information from a family of ghouls, they identify the power that’s manipulating these monks, and set out down into the network of sewers and tunnels beneath London’s Underground to confront it—and hopefully bring it to an end. The climax comes together in fire and fear and loss and desperate last stands—and the dénouement is a thing of wonderful sweetness.
Strange Practice is a refreshingly different take on the urban fantasy subgenre. Not many urban fantasies have doctors as their main characters, instead of badass cops or bounty hunters or vampire killers—and Greta is very much a doctor. She’s a badass GP, working as her own research and development division, and also undertaking surgery as needed. She wants to fix things and provide medical care, and people attacking her patients—or her!—is unusual and a little beyond her experience, if not beyond her capacities to deal with.
What brings Strange Practice to life—beyond its quiet humour and excellently-paced narrative—are its characters. Greta is first and foremost among them, but then there’s Ruthven, a vampire who struggles with depressive boredom and opens his home to Greta and her patients; Fastitocalon, an accountant and a maths geek with chronic bronchitis who is also some kind of supernatural being (spoiler: his backstory is really cool) and who has some very ordinary self-destructive habits like going out without his coat and never being willing to ask for help; August Cranswell, conservator and historian, who’s in over his head and who really wants to get the books he borrowed from the museum back before he loses his job; and Varney, dramatic and insecure and finding it difficult to see himself as a person instead of (as well as) a monster, who’s surprisingly sweet in his attraction to Greta.
The ghouls are also great. Everyone needs more family-oriented ghouls.
In many ways, Strange Practice is a deeply kind book. Though it contains murder and distressing scenes involving monks, it’s primary concerned with community and connections. With trying to make things better, and finding joy and satisfaction in healing a wound or helping someone to live more comfortably. Strange Practice has a tense and thrilling plot, but all of the main characters like and respect each other. They listen to each other, they compensate for each others’ shortcomings, and they act in largely sensible ways.
It’s an extraordinary debut. I really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it. And I cannot wait to see what Shaw does next.
Strange Practice is available from Orbit Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign