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.

Hugo reading 2018: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is essentially a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. It tells the story of Jack and Jill and why they went through their door, and what happened when they did.  Their world had vampires and werewolves and mad scientists, and definitely falls into a horror sort of genre – it’s a fairy tale, and told like one, but it’s a dark one.

I actually bought and read this when it was first published, and wasn’t especially taken with it.  I enjoyed it more on this reading, partly, perhaps, because it was a nice change from all the science fiction.  McGuire does some interesting things with family, and gender, and how we are shaped by the roles we are put into (and what happens when we are given a chance at a different role).

One thing that I found kept grabbing my attention when reading this book (on both occasions) was the way Jack and Jill presented.  They are identical twin girls, and we meet them in Doorway, Jack dresses in a very masculine style, and has male mannerisms.  He is also the scientist of the group.  Jill, on the other hand, is a very girly-girl, and while she clearly has plenty of brains, she tends to pretend she isn’t using them. But at the start of the book, it’s little Jillian who is the bold, curious twin who gets pushed into the tomboy role and plays soccer and runs around, while the more timid, quiet Jacqueline is the ‘pretty’ twin, who wears beautiful dresses that she isn’t allowed to get dirty, and plays with dolls.  It’s clear that, once through the doorway, each child takes the opportunity to be someone different, but having seen them in such strongly gendered roles in Doorway, I kept getting confused and having to remind myself which was which in Sticks and Bones.  This is probably mostly a reflection on how I view gender…

I enjoy McGuire’s writing, and the way she convincingly relates the fantastical to the mundane.  For example, here is the vampire seducing Jill:

He is not so different from the boys she had been dreading meeting when she started her high school career. Like them, he wants her for her body. Like them, he is bigger than her, stronger than her, more powerful than her in a thousand ways. But unlike them, he tells her no lies, puts no veils before his intentions; he is hungry, and she is meat for his table, she is wine for his cup.

Creepy as hell, and not just because he is a vampire.

I don’t quite know how to write usefully about this novella.  I don’t think it’s McGuire’s most successful work, but I do think it’s good.  I don’t think it’s quite up there with the brilliance of And Then There Were (N-One), but I definitely rank it above the hippos.  We’ll have to see what else is in this category.

(Oh, and one last thing: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway to enjoy the Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but I think if you read Sticks and Bones first, then certain things in Doorway are going to be… fairly unsurprising.  In other words, read this one second.)

Hugo reading 2017: Best Series

“What’s this?”, you say?  “Best series?  What happened to best novel?”

Well.  I was supposed to read Becky Chambers’ book, A Closed and Common Orbit next, but I just thought I’d have a teensy look at the first book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon, and the next thing I knew it was 2am and I was 200+ pages in and realising that I had to work in the morning.

(OK, I realised that well before this point, but I just didn’t care…)

So I wound up reading that first.  A quick note on the Best Series for me, by the way.  I’ve actually read everything in three of the series (serieses?) nominated this year, so I already know how they are ranked in relation to each other, and will write about them briefly here, but it’s hard to review an entire series, so I probably can’t do them justice.

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Hugo reading 2017: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

After all those short stories and comics, I wanted something a bit longer. But I’m not quite ready to commit to the novels yet, so it’s novella time!

First cab off the rank was Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. I’ve actually read this already, but it was a pleasure to re-read it. The basic premise of this story is that sometimes, the children who go to Narnia, or Oz, or Fairyland, or Wonderland, or the Land of the Dead, don’t want to come home. But they do anyway, and then what can they do? Well, fortunately for them, Eleanor West, who spent most of her childhood visiting a Nonsense world, has set up a school for these children, which is good, because whether they are High Nonsense / Virtuous, or High Logic / Wicked they tend to be a little bit odd.

Nancy has recently returned from the Land of the Dead, where she spent several years learning stillness before she was sent home to our world, in order to be sure that she wanted to stay. She is certain that the door will open again for her. Sadly, her parents think that she was kidnapped for six months and just want their bright, vibrant daughter back. They also want her to be normal and go on dates, which is a problem for Nancy, because she is asexual.

At the Home for Wayward Children, Nancy meets other children who are like her, but not like her. There is the hyperactive Sami, who spent time in a High Nonsense, candy-themed world; Allison, who ran on rainbows; the beautiful Kane, whose fairyland kicked him out when they realised that the little girl they had kidnapped was ‘actually a little boy who just happened to look like a little girl’ (I do like this way of describing a transgender character); the twins, Jack and Jill, who came from a rather dark world ruled by vampires, where Jack was apprenticed to the local mad scientist, and Jill was the chosen adopted daughter of the local vampire lord; and Christopher, my personal favourite, who went to a world of ‘happy, dancing skeletons’, and can still make skeletons dance with his bone flute.

Alas, someone is murdering the children at the school, and Nancy’s status as the new girl with an affinity for Death (and a tendency to be drawn to the other children from the darker worlds) makes her a suspect.

This story is great fun. It’s quite dark and scary in places, but there is a lovely sense of humour to it, and I do like the way Seanan writes characters whose sexualities are not the standard cis/het variety. I liked all of the characters, and of course the premise is awesome. The mystery was a bit light on – it was clear to me fairly early on who the murderer was – but in fact that didn’t matter, because the suspense came from a) the characters working it out b) wondering just what they would do when they did, since the personal moralities of these characters was pretty variable, and c) wondering whether any of the children would find their way ‘home’ to their other worlds. Which was, I think, something that mattered to the children even more than the murders did.

The bizarre bit is that I could have sworn that the answer to c) was different the first time I read this novella.

But I’ve just checked my hard copy of this book, and unless Seanan McGuire has channelled some sort of alternate universe magic – which is certainly possible – it was the same. Very odd. Anyway, I like this a lot, and it’s going to be high on my ballot!