Hugo reading 2018: Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series

Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series is one of the two series nominated for this award that I have read in full.  The series centres around the Price family, who are crytpozoologists, and the cryptids they serve.  The cryptobiology is well-thought-out, and ranges from the amusing to the grotesque, much in the manner of actual zoology.

The other thing you need to know about the Price family is that they are in hiding.  Several generations ago, the Prices and Healys were members of the Covenant, an international organisation devoted to protecting humanity from monsters.  But the Covenant defines monsters pretty broadly, and Alexander and Enid Healy began to have doubts about this mission after the extinction of unicorns led to an outbreak of cholera (unicorns purify water, after all…).  And possibly also after they encountered the Aislinn mice, a species of sentient mouse characterised by religious fervour and a tendency to talk in ALL CAPS WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS!  ALL HAIL THE EXCLAMATION POINT!!

Frankly, the Aislinn mice alone are worth the price of admission to these books.

Anyway, the Covenant did not take kindly to the departure of the Healys, who they viewed as traitors to the human race.  A generation or two later, they sent Thomas Price after them, but he wound up falling in love with Alice Healy and marrying her.  After that, the Healy and Price families basically faked their own deaths and went into hiding for several generations.

At the point when the series begins, then (in Discount Armageddon), the Prices have become the cryptozoologist equivalent of rangers – they study and protect cryptid populations, rehome or, where necessary, destroy cryptids who are preying on humans, and they learn to be very good at fighting, trapping and hiding from an early age, because not only is the cryptid population itself somewhat dangerous, one never knows when the Covenant might turn up again.  But they have to do this secretly, because the Covenant monitors the media for mentions of them – so Antimony hones her fighting skills through cheerleading and roller derby; another Price family member learns swordfighting through the SCA, and Verity Price is a professional ballroom dancer.

You will not be surprised to learn that the first book in this series begins with Verity Price meeting Dominic DeLuca, a member of the Covenant, on a rooftop in New York.

This series starts off light and fluffy and humorous – anyone who has read McGuire’s other work knows how much fun she can be when she puts her mind to it, and she really does so here.  But it’s not all sweetness and light, and the darker elements get stronger as the series continues.  Though you can always rely on the mice to improve matters – the Aislinn mouse colony worships the Price family with endless ritualised festivals and re-enactments of important events in the Price family history, but they are more than just comic relief.  They are, quite literally, the Price family’s ‘black box’ – a colony goes with each family member who travels away from the main family, because they can be relied upon to remember everything that happened, and turn it into a singing, dancing, festival that must be observed on the proper day.

An extra fun part about this series is that McGuire has worked out a LOT of the family history of the Healys and Prices, and so there are a lot of short stories on her website, following the lives of various Price and Healy ancestors, and giving us little vignettes of what the characters are doing in between the novels.  This is of particular interest, because after the second book, we leave Verity and follow her brother Alex for a couple of books, before returning to Verity, for another book, then moving on to little sister Antimony –  they are all off doing different things in different places (including Australia!  Where it is heavily implied that a number of the crytpids have managed to get themselves recognised as normal animals, to my amusement…), to further the overarching plot, which I suspect will be extensive, given how McGuire normally works.

This is a really fun series, and I don’t know how to judge it.  I was talking to Andrew last night about the fact that I seem inclined to downgrade novels that I enjoy too much, possibly out of romance-reader shame – I don’t trust my taste to be objectively good, because I like my literature escapist and fluffy.  But this is a problem, because I suspect I’m actually giving too much weight to this idea that my taste is flawed, or that fun, fluffy books aren’t worthwhile.  And… these books aren’t all fluff, either.

It’s also tricky, because I feel as though the worldbuilding is less dense here than it is in the Lady Trent or Divine Cities books, and I’m not sure that that is fair, either.  Yes, this is contemporary urban fantasy, so some parts of the world are already there with no added effort on McGuire’s part – but the cryptozoology and family history is actually very extensive.  It just feels different.  I wonder if this is also because McGuire’s voice is very transparent and modern, so one doesn’t notice it, while Lady Trent has a very distinctly Victorian feel, and the language in the Divine Cities is also subtly different?

I don’t know.  But I think I’m going to put this series second on my ballot after all, because ‘I really like this’ ought to be a value.  That means Lady Trent and the Divine Cities are now fighting it out for third and fourth, and I really have no idea how I’ll make that decision.

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