Dreadful Company is Vivian Shaw’s second book, sequel to last year’s excellent Strange Practice. And if anything, it’s even more fun.
How fun is it? So much fun that I had to steal it back from my girlfriend, who pounced on it as soon as she saw it, and refused to put it down after she read the first page. (Fortunately, we’re both pretty fast readers, and we’re pretty good at sharing.)
Dr. Greta Helsing isn’t your average medical doctor. She runs a practice dedicated to the supernatural, treating vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, mummies, ghouls, and all manner of other being. Her best friend is Edmund Ruthven, vampire; and Sir Francis Varney (also a vampire) is tentatively trying to swoon at her feet. After the events of Strange Practice, in which Greta found herself at the centre of attempts to dissuade a very strange religious cult beneath London’s underground from doing a whole lot of murder, Dreadful Company finds Greta attending a medical conference in Paris. She’s filling in on short notice for a colleague, another member of the small community of doctors who practice medicine for monsters, and at the start of the book she’s about to attend the opera in Ruthven’s company.
Well, not exactly. Dreadful Company opens with Greta finding a wellmonster—a small, largely harmless sort of monster with approximately the intelligence of a cat—in her hotel bathroom’s sink. Wellmonsters aren’t usually very common unless they’ve been summoned, and shortly after her trip to the opera, Greta finds another small, appallingly cute monster in her hotel room: a hairmonster, which is less often summoned than bred, but which can be summoned too. With Ruthven headed back to England to deal with his own business, Greta decides that the unusual presence of these harmless monsters is worth dropping a line to the werewolf who takes it upon himself to keep an eye on supernatural happenings in Paris. Unfortunately, said werewolf is a little distracted by the book on Parisian history he’s been writing, and before he can respond to Greta’s message, she’s kidnapped by vampires—irresponsible vampires who’re led by a bully and a murderer called Corvin, who has a long-standing grudge against Ruthven and who’s seized on Greta as a means of hurting him.
Corvin’s vampires are seriously into the ’90s goth aesthetic. And body glitter. They also do things like make young people into vampires without their consent, and one of them has a rather bad summoning habit. While in their custody, Greta makes an ally in a rather terrified young woman called Emily, but Emily is too frightened to help her escape. Greta will have to do that on her own.
Meanwhile, a pair of remedial psychopomps are in Paris, and worried about odd things to do with the city’s ghosts. They discover the worrisome problem that the fabric of reality may be becoming rather weak—and this discovery leads them to the company of Ruthven and Varney, who’ve noticed that Greta is missing. Just as in Strange Practice, a small band of unlikely heroes has to come together to solve a problem, and Greta’s at the heart of it all.
Dreadful Company is fast, fun, and immensely readable. As with Strange Practice, one of the largest parts of its appeal is in its voice. Dreadful Company has a wry edge, one that at times goes all the way over into laugh-out-loud funny, without ever losing a sense of heart. And it’s got kindness in its bedrock.
Greta is an easy character to like. She’s a doctor because she wants to fix things, to heal people, and that doesn’t change even when those people have kidnapped her, held her in an underground cell, and threatened to kill her. She uses her wits to understand things, and to find unusual allies, but not to do harm. In a genre where violence is a common answer to most problems, that makes her a very appealing character indeed. It doesn’t hurt that she’s extremely practical: I think fans of T. Kingfisher (AKA Ursula Vernon) might like Vivian Shaw’s work a great deal.
As you may have guessed, I deeply enjoyed Dreadful Company. If I have one complaint, it’s that perhaps it doesn’t balance all of its characters’ narrative strands as well as it could have done. Still, it’s delightful. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and I’m looking forward to seeing much more of Shaw’s work in the years to come.
Dreadful Company is available July 31st from Orbit.
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, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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.