Thursday, February 13, 2014

Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire

Midnight Blue-Light Special is the fourth book of Seanan McGuire's I've read. The second installment of the InCryptid series, shares many of the elements that made Discount Armageddon so enjoyable, but suffers from some problematic issues with narrative voice and plot tension that hampered my enjoyment. McGuire is a prolific writer, putting out an impressive number of titles in a relatively short length of time, so it's no surprise that not every offering will be as strong as the last. Feed released under the pseudonym Mira Grant remains one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years, and I will certainly tune in for the rest of the Newsflesh trilogy, but I'm not so sure I'll be showing up for the further adventures of Verity Price.

Picking up the story shortly after the events of Discount Armageddon, not much has changed for Verity. She's still working at the strip club, though it's under new management and has been renamed The Freakshow, she's still figuring out her relationship with Dominic De Luca, who's membership in the Covenent of St. George still complicates things, and she's still unable to find a way to get her ballroom dancing career off the ground due to her moonlighting as a crypto-zoologist consuming all of her time. With her year in New York coming to an end, Verity has a choice to make, does she leave the family business in pursuit of her dreams or does she accept her role in cryptid society? But that choice is quickly placed on hold, when Dominic reveals that his superiors in the Covenant are sending a team to check on his progress in Manhattan and determine whether or not to move forward with a purge of the city. With the entire population of cryptids in danger and Dominic's allegiance in question, Verity must gather what allies she can and prepare to defend her city against a threat so dire that it threatens not just the cryptids but Verity herself.

Fans of the series will find much to enjoy in this installment, McGuire keen characterization and rich world building continue. This installment adds more definition to Verity's extended family, introducing her adoptive uncle, Mike to the cast. Sarah also gets more page time and even some time as a point of view character(more on that in a bit) , and we are treated to more explanation of her abilities and biology as a result. Istas, the gothic Lolita who can transform into a hybrid bear-wolf-hybrid also makes a more significant contribution to the story, though largely as a source of comedy. And of course, the Aeslin mice continue to tickle funny bones with their peculiar religious observances and rituals.

I applaud McGuire's approach to world building, even with dragons, gorgons, ghosts, boogeymen down every alley and shopping the local bodegas, there's nary a werewolf or vampire in sight. She's managed to populate her urban fantasy with a diverse and rich cast. She mines from myth and legend and is not afraid to throw plenty of beasties of her own creation into the mix. The glut of paint-by-numbers urban fantasy on the shelves would do well to take a few pages from McGuire's approach. There is a definite sense of wonder in Verity's world and McGuire shows no sign of taking her foot from the gas in this volume.

Which brings me to my issues with the novel. After reading several of McGuire's novels over the last six months, I've begun to notice a similarity in her protagonists. With all of the novels I've read being told in strict first person narrative it's hard to miss. With all female protagonists, a similar sense of snarky humor, family dysfunction, and more these women while definitely enjoyable all begin to sound the same to me. It's well done, but it's a definite sense of "second verse, same as the first" for this reader. It became impossible for me to dismiss in this novel, because of the four or five chapters where the point of view shifted to Verity's 'cousin' Sarah. Because these chapters are also written in first person, it was easy to see the similarity in the narrative voice. If it weren't for the chapter headings and the references to Sarah's otherworldly biology I would have thought there hadn't been a shift in narration. The voice is compelling, to be sure, but it is nearly indistinguishable from Verity's. It becomes a bit of a one trick pony, and one that McGuire seems quite content to beat to death.

There are other things about the writing that back up the repetition for it's own sake. McGuire is quite fond of inside jokes and certain turns of phrase. Istas' constant references to "carnage" and Dominic's continuously referring to Verity as a "infuriating woman" are the most prevalent to me, but I'm sure other readers will be able to pick out the ones that grate for them. I understand the want to create a lexicon, similar to the Buffy speak Whedon made so popular, but for some reason it pulled me out of the story on this go around.

My only other major complaint centers around the antagonists. The Covenant has been built up as nigh unstoppable and terrifying to the entire cryptid community and even Verity seems frightened half to death of their arrival. But when they finally arrive they are little more than straw men, falling over far too easily. The eventual showdown was so anticlimactic that I felt the last half of the novel to be wasted.

With that said, most of the novel was fun. McGuire obviously enjoys these characters and letting her imagination run wild as she populates New York with some of the most memorable and human monsters in the genre. Readers can do far worse than spend time with Verity and her clan of extended relatives and renegade monster hunters. I'm probably going to stick with the Newsflesh series, but who knows I may just revisit the InCryptid universe eventually.

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