Seanan McGuire's InCryptid series began with a pair of novels about Verity Price and I enjoyed them enough that I was concerned to discover that books three and four would be focused on her brother Alex instead. I do like my urban fantasy to have tough female leads, which Very epitomises, and some male zoologist breeding basilisks in Ohio wasn't a direction I was keen on following.
I was surprised to discover that I actually preferred Alex in this third book to Very in the first two. His day job at the West Columbus Zoo makes for a more believable, if much tamer, grounding than Very's job at Dave's Fish and Strips. Alex runs the zoo's Reptile House, under the pseudonym of Dr. Preston, where he breeds those basilisks on the sly with the assistance of Dee, a Pliny's Gorgon, hiding her own heritage through judicious use of headgear.
While I was surprised to prefer Alex to Very, I wasn't surprised to prefer Shelby Tanner to Dominic de Luca as their respective love interests. Sure, Shelby plays more than a little forward and obnoxious for a while, but it's no shock to find that there's a reveal coming and we can move on to what's clearly going to be an Alex and Shelby adventure.
It's easy to see quite a few similarities between Shelby and Dominic, but the former fortunately misses out on the numerous drawbacks of the latter. Compared to Dominic, who spent much too long not getting where he clearly had to be, Shelby's a breath of fresh air, as wild and difficult to control as her well-chosen country of origin: she hails from Sydney, Australia, a land where everything in nature seems to want to kill you.
Alex has a few things on his plate as our story begins. He's attempting to survey the local population of frickens, feathered frogs who sing, given that they seem to be taking over the Ohio swamps from regular amphibians. He's also trying to help his cousin, Sarah Zellaby, in her recovery from trauma received while saving his sister's life at the end of the previous book. She's moved in with their grandmother, given that she's also what's known as a cuckoo and so understands her better than anyone else, but progress is slow. He's also trying to figure out how to deal with Shelby, a dream girl for him but one to whom he's had to continually lie because she's a regular human being who isn't privy to all the secrets he has to keep as a cryptozoologist, not least Chandi, the eight-year-old girl who sneaks into the Reptile House to spend time with Alex’s spectacled cobra.
Unfortunately, all these promptly take a back seat when Andrew, his other assistant, shows up dead, partially turned to stone. The authorities will surely interpret this as a strange new disease but Alex knows that he was attacked by a petrifactor. Was it a gorgon, a basilisk or a cockatrice? The first two are definitely at the zoo, not that anyone else knows that but Dee, but he rules both of them out. So who's traipsing around with a live cockatrice and why? There lies our story.
The downside to 'Half-Off Ragnarok', other than the title yet again being completely meaningless in the context of the story, is that the mystery is obscured. This is a novel of introduction, even if it's book three in the series, so McGuire spends more time setting up her leads and the complex backgrounds whence they come than she does setting up a mystery for us to solve. Really, we sit back and watch Alex solve it rather than take part ourselves. It's not difficult to pick the killer, given that he's the only character to not have any other purpose in the story, but that's about it. When it comes to motive, we have to wait for it to be explained.
The upside is all that characterisation and worldbuilding. I saw the world of Alex and Shelby better than I did that of Very and Dominic. I cared more about both of them and I enjoyed many of the supporting characters too. I was a fan of Sarah Zellaby anyway and this book only adds to her depth. I'm definitely a fan of her grandparents now, as I fully expected to be. Price family members are almost guaranteed to be interesting; but the older they are, the better. Well, except Antimony. I'm still looking forward to seeing what she'll get up to when she finally gets to join in.
Of course, as with the earlier InCryptid books, many of the supporting cast aren't human and McGuire clearly has a lot of fun creating her cryptids. I adore Aeslin mice and Alex's colony actually get to work a little here, but it's the more grounded angles that work best. For instance, there are a lot of gorgons in this book, hardly surprising given that it's focused on the hunt for a murderous petrifactor, but McGuire allows them to develop well. They hide in the countryside, protected by illusions, but how tough must it be farming animals when your very gaze turns living creatures to stone?
I'm interested to see how the cryptid population grows in book four, given that Alex is partially restricted to the zoo's Reptile House. The wadjets are surely going to get more wordage and Alex's miniature griffin sidekick, Crow, can't fail to get plenty to do, but I wonder what else can end up in play. The InCryptid books are worth reading just to see what can be done in urban fantasy without having to resort to traditional monsters: vampires, werewolves and zombies. McGuire's imagination doesn't need them and I'm happy that she's stayed away from them thus far.
The second Verity Price book took everything that McGuire threw into the first and ran with it to create a much better story. I'm hoping that she'll do the same with the second Alex Price book, because it's just as needed. I'm a fan of the characters, the creatures and the concepts and I have a great appreciation for this world and the way that McGuire keeps expanding it. Now that she's set up Alex and Shelby's side of things, let's hope that it will build into a story that we can get our teeth stuck into.
So here's to book four, 'Pocket Apocalypse'! Let it be a great second half that will expand upon and elevate this first half. Whether it will or not, I'll find out next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell