Compelling Contemporary Fantasy: Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell

I’m much more familiar with Gareth L. Powell’s science fiction than with any work he’s previously done in the fantasy vein. Embers of War and Fleet of Knives are his most recent work, part of an interesting space opera trilogy, and although I haven’t read his Ack-Ack Macaque, its BSFA-Award-winning status offers some endorsement as to its quality.

Ragged Alice is a low-key contemporary fantasy. DCI Holly Craig has had a successful career with the London Metropolitan Police, albeit one marked by her isolation from colleagues, her lack of meaningful relationships, and her alcoholism-as-coping-method. Orphaned young, she was raised by her grandfather in the small Welsh coastal village of Pontyrhudd, a place she left as soon as she could—a place where a brush with death-by-drowning on the eve of her departure for university gave her the ability to see the shadows on people’s souls. (An ability she never wanted and finds really difficult to cope with.)

Fifteen years on from her escape from Pontyrhudd, she’s back in her old hometown as the new local senior police officer, to investigate what at first looks like no more than a hit-and-run. But when the hit-and-run driver—who, it transpired, intentionally murdered his girlfriend with his car—is found gruesomely murdered, things begin to spiral even further out of control. Another murder follows. And an attempt on Holly’s life.

Holly has never looked into the circumstances of her own mother’s death—her mother’s murder. But it turns out that these most recent murders match her mother’s long-ago death in every particular. What connects the victims? What is the link to Holly’s mother’s death? Why are people dying? It’s up to Holly to answer these questions, with the aid of her shiny, honest, idealistic, safely married young Detective Sergeant Scott Fowler. If she can’t solve the murders, her career is—her superiors have made clear—over. But keeping herself functional and on track—and not letting her weird talent interfere with rational police work—is taking something of a toll on Holly. The murders in Pontyrhudd are more personal and more closely connected to her mother than she could have ever guessed.

Powell offers us some really good character work in Ragged Alice, from local reporter (determined to get out to a real paper of record, or the BBC) Amy Lao, who wrangles her way into the middle of Holly’s investigation—and forges something that could eventually be friendship with Holly herself—on the basis of sheer stubbornness and good contacts; to elderly hotel resident Mrs. Phillips, a woman who sees ghosts, among other things, and who remembers fondly the sexual exploits of her youth. And youthful, shiny Scott Fowler, the DS with a heart of gold, makes an interesting contrast with Holly, whose idealism, if she ever had it, wore off years ago, and who on a good day might manage “unapproachable” instead of “cranky” or “will bite your head off.” But Holly, protagonist and main viewpoint character, is the real star of the show. She’s not unaware of her flaws. The problem is that most of them grew out of coping methods.

This is a compelling novella. Powell keeps the murder investigation both tense and grounded in the day-to-day details of regular policework. The supernatural is never fully explained, but its involvement is emotionally integral to both the story and its eventual satisfying denouement. (I especially liked the novella’s final scene. That worked damn well.)

I enjoyed Ragged Alice a great deal. You should give it a try.

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 was nominated for a 2018 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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