Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire

Twice in a row now I’ve found myself reading a Seanan McGuire book while my wife has surgery. This time it was Discount Armageddon [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. Here’s the official synopsis:

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night… The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity-and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…

This book is McGuire combining her fascination with weird and wacky biology with her never-resting imagination to produce an urban fantasy that isn’t too serious, but is a great deal of fun. There’s plenty of good banter, lots of action, and a long list of interesting creatures to meet and talk to and/or beat to a pulp.

I had started reading this a while back, and it hadn’t sucked me in. I’m not sure if that was the book or my life getting in the way. But this time, as soon as we reached rumors of the dragon, I was hooked.

The romantic subplot was pretty true-to-form. Sexy sworn enemy is sexy, protagonist goes back and forth between attraction and wanting to put a bullet in SSE, SSE slowly comes around, and ends up more or less on the side of the angels. Except not, because in McGuire’s world, angels are probably some sort of dinosaur/bird hybrid that evolved to feed on the sound waves generated by hymnal music. That said, it was a fun subplot, and they do have some good chemistry going.

What really makes the book work though are the cryptids, the various species McGuire fits into the urban setting, from Sarah the shy/geeky/telepathic cuckoo to the dragon princesses to the gorgon to the Aeslin mice. Oh God, the mice. I won’t even try to explain them, except to say they’re one of those delightfully fun ideas I wish I’d come up with. While the sheer number of cryptids living undetected in the city strained my belief a bit, in a lighter book like this, I think it works.

Keep in mind, “light” doesn’t mean “mindless” or “thoughtless.” While the Covenant are pretty straightforward bad guys, the Price family brings a more interesting perspective as cryptobiologists, studying the biological role of cryptids and how they fit into the larger ecology. (Want to know what caused the Black Plague? Hint: It has something to do with the loss of unicorns.) Traditional monsters aren’t treated as monsters; nor are they simply misunderstood uglies with hearts of gold. They’re true to their nature. Like any other species, they can be dangerous, but that doesn’t make them evil. It’s an examination you don’t run into that often.

Which leads to a point I’ve seen made in some of the negative reviews for the book. In the first chapter, Verity chases down a ghoul who has murdered a number of girls in the city. But instead of killing it, she lets it off with a warning, with the understanding that if it happens again, she’ll personally end him. Which means she essentially let a murderer go free, and some readers have a problem with that.

Me, I’m torn. I can’t imagine the ghoul was under the mistaken impression that killing and eating random girls was okay, so it’s not like this was a cultural misunderstanding. On the other hand, if it was deliberate–and knowing McGuire, I’d lay odds that it was–it shows that Verity is in some ways just as bound to the rules and teachings of her family as the Covenant is to theirs. She lets the ghoul go because that’s what the Price family does, in part I suspect to distinguish themselves from the Covenant. It didn’t ruin the book or anything, but it was a bit troubling, and I wonder if that decision will come back in future books.

Overall, a lot of fun. If you like McGuire’s work, this one’s worth checking out. If you haven’t tried her stuff, this might be a good place to start.