When I first met Seanan McGuire at New York Comic-Con 2010, I hadn’t read any of her books. But after a conversation with her in the mad rush that is a signing line, I knew that I would enjoy her books. But I couldn’t anticipate just how much.
Today, she is one of my most-favorite authors, and I blame her two main urban fantasy series, the Toby Daye and InCryptid novels.
Tomorrow, Seanan McGuire returns us to the world of gun-toting ballroom dancers who happen to be monster hunters with the third release in her InCryptid series, Half-Off Ragnarok.
This time around, however, we’re no longer following Verity Price’s escapes as she free-runs the rooftops of Manhattan. No, Vertiy is off on a roadtrip with her Covenant-turned-traitor boyfriend, so the focus shifts to her brother, Alex.
A whole new world, yet…not
A herpetologist in the Colombus Zoo, Alex focuses on keeping cryptids being considered mythological by modern science. Which, not an easy task when you’re running a secret basilisk breeding program and one of your assistants happens to have snakes in place of hair. Among other things.
Like, y’know, extremely brilliant, beautiful, and curious Australian zookeepers.
And murders where the victims are discovered having been petrified.
Obviously enough, this is a different setting than that of the first two InCryptid novels, Discount Armageddon and Midnight Blue-Light Special. There are new people, new cryptids, and a new protagonist. But this is a Seanan McGuire novel, which means there are enough holdovers from the prior novels that the reader gets a sense of the larger world outside the borders of the singular novel. Holdovers such as the philosophical tidbits from the elder generations of the Price family, Alex and Verity’s cuckoo cousin, and the presence of the ever-entertaining Aeslin Mice.
Like its two predecessors, this novel continues in a lighter, fluffier tone than other urban fantasy series. It’s not that there isn’t danger to the characters, but tragedy hasn’t befallen them yet the way it has, say, Toby in McGuire’s Toby Daye novels. But it’s also not that the series is “fluffy” in terms of not-being worth reading—I am specifically speaking to the overall atmosphere of the novels, not the quality of the writing. The atmosphere is in a similar vein to that of the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne, before the Really Bad Stuff™ started hitting the fan. So if you’re looking for a book with a dark and gritty edge, I would look elsewhere. I don’t doubt that Really Bad Stuff™ will happen, because Seanan McGuire is at the helm, but it’s likely a few books off yet.
If there’s one thing Half-Off Ragnarok does better than anything else, it’s the emphasis on the importance of family. Considering that Alex lives with his grandmother, grandfather, and cousin Sarah while working at the zoo, it seems inevitable. Yet it delves deeper than that, because Alex’s aunt and cousin are Jorlacc cuckoos (cryptids that are, essentially, the perfect predator of humans), and his uncle is a zombie. So when another cryptozoologist comes knocking (and subsequently has their world turned upside down), it turns to a message about the two kinds of family you can have in this world: those related to you by blood, and then those that you choose.
Characters you could live with
Something that sets the InCryptid novels apart from other urban fantasy series is the realistic portrayal of all characters, both human and cryptid. In a lot of series, the monsters don’t get as much motivation and cultural development as human characters, but McGuire doesn’t skimp—even the factions within cryptic communities have completely believable motivations, purposes, and goals. And in this process of building the world around the cryptids, she has the reader understanding and empathizing with them—even those set against the protagonist and his allies. It’s one of McGuire’s strong points across the board in her writing, and it shines in Half-Off Ragnarok
Why should you read this book?
If you haven’t read the previous novels in the series, you could totally jump in on this book and not be lost. So if you connect better with a male protagonist and so haven’t tried the InCryptid books yet (or if you don’t have access to the first two), I urge you to pick up this book. Like fantasy and gorgons, widget, and snakes in general? Pick up this book. Like fantasy and don’t like snakes? Pick up this book (I’m an ophidiophobe and loved it, so don’t let that stop you). But more than that, read it for the layers McGuire has to offer. Because while chock full of quality worldbuilding, realistic characters, and a double helping of sass, at its core, Half-Off Ragnarok is a book about judging others according to stereotypes, how nurture can overcome nature, and the importance of family.
Garrett received an ARC of Half-Off Ragnarok courtesy of DAW Books.