I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire, so I was thrilled when an ARC of Half-Off Ragnorak showed up on my front porch. It was like Christmas, y’all. This installment of the InCryptid series switches gears, leaving Verity, the heroine of the first two books, off in the big city while Alex, her brother, takes center stage.
Alex is a member of the Price family. The Prices are a family of people who study cryptids. Cryptids are, essentially, monsters, although such a harsh term hardly seems to apply to cute critters like the Aeislin Mice, who worship the Price family and greet everything with “HAIL”! I love the mice and in fact one of my notes for this book reads “Needs more mice”.
Anyway, Alex specializes in studying reptilian and amphibious cryptids. He works as a herpetologist at a zoo under a fake identity. The fake identity is key to his safety, as the Price family has been hunted by another group called The Covenant for generations. The Price family believes in studying cryptids and protecting any who are harmless while killing any who can’t be persuaded or prevented from killing. The Covenant has a policy of killing any and all cryptids, regardless of any threat these cryptids show to either other cryptids or to humans.
Alex is tentatively dating a woman who works at the zoo with the big cats. Her name is Shelby. Shelby is from Australia. She’s getting pretty fed up by the fact that her quasi-boyfriend is never around, but Alex constantly has to dissect mythological creatures and write reports on them at a moment’s notice (for SCIENCE!) and he can’t tell her what he’s doing. When a person at the zoo is discovered dead by apparently supernatural means, Alex’s family and Shelby and the local cryptid community all quickly become involved as Alex and Shelby try to solve the murder and keep from being killed themselves.
Good stuff first – this book is fun. I love me some angst-ridden urban fantasy and paranormal stuff as much as the next reader, but the InCryptid novels are a breath of fresh air with a tone that is light and funny and action-packed while never losing a sense of emotional engagement with the reader. I care about these people (most of them, anyway) and that keeps the pages turning as I can’t wait to see What Happens Next.
Another thing I love about the series in general and this entry in particular is its careful attention to detail. Because Alex is a scientist, he’s meticulous about describing the various creatures he encounters and how they interact with him as well as others of their kind. I never get tired of his encounters with beings like Lindworms and Wadjets. The Price family is far more likely to deal with cuckoos and waheela than with vampires and werewolves, and much as I love vampires and werewolves I find the change to be original and exciting and refreshing.
Given my long-standing scientist fetish, you’d think I’d be crazy about Alex, but I found him to be a bit smug. He’s not intolerably smug. I didn’t hate him. I kind of liked him. But I thought sometimes he was a bit too self-satisfied with regard to how very well he knows his stuff and how very perfectly equipped he is to handle everything. Shelby is competent and knowledgeable in her field, but while Alex seems to know everything about everything, Shelby only knows about Australia. There are many scenes in which Alex explains what’s going on to Shelby and to his family (and some in which Shelby explains her situation to Alex and to his family) and those scenes got pretty repetitive.
Shelby should have come across as a kick-ass heroine, and I liked her. But I was frustrated because I never felt like she got to be Alex’s equal. She’s more like a sidekick. I expect that her character will develop more over the next two books, because that’s what happened with Dominic in the last two Incryptid books. But even when he first appeared, Dominic was as academically knowledgeable and capable as Verity. They had a difference of philosophy involving little things like wanton murder, but I never doubted that he could hold his own, or that Verity could hold her own.
Shelby is fast, strong, and smart, but she has to be rescued by Alex all the damn time. She’s good at saying the right thing to defuse tense situations, but other than that she’s not terribly helpful. Her expertise is in big cats and Australian animals, none of which applies here. This is not a romance novel, but it does have a romance, and I don’t feel invested in it at all. I think Alex is smug and slightly patronizing, and I’d much rather read about the adventures of Shelby in Australia, especially if she gets to save her own damn self once in a while when she’s on her home ground.
Let’s be clear – despite my criticisms, I had a great time reading this book and I’ll read all the other ones in the series forever because I’m a total fangirl. Parts of this book worked better than the two previous books. I liked Alex’s scientific approach to things. I liked that while neither Verity nor Dominic can communicate worth a darn, Alex and Shelby communicate just fine, once Alex stops his whole “I’m just this guy at the zoo, nothing weird about me” charade. Parts of the book were less effective. I didn’t have a sense of Alex and Shelby as a team. Speaking personally and subjectively, I’m not as drawn to Alex as a hero as I was to Verity. But overall, this was a fun book. Given the high level of attention to detail, it was probably very hard to write, but it was an absolute lark to read!