Half-off Ragnarok (but look on the bright side)

Book cover: Half-off RagnarokThe third instalment of Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series moves the action to a new location and introduces Alex, Verity Price’s older brother. Smart, quiet and Devoted To Science, he’s as well trained as his little sisters – which is just as well given what’s about to go down in Columbus, Ohio…

I delayed reading Half-off Ragnarok based on a lukewarm review by someone I trust; and having read it, I can see her point of view. However, having had over a year away from the Incryptids – and a torrid week – it was exactly what I needed.

Cryptid, noun:

1. Any creature whose existence has been suggested but not proven scientifically. Coined by cryptozoologist John E. Wall (1983)

2. That thing that’s getting ready to eat your head.

3. See also: “monster.”

We find ourselves at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, current workplace of Alex Price – herpetologist  (or should that be cryptoherpetologist?) and defender of cryptids. Allegedly a visiting researcher on secondment from California, he’s actually studying the explosive population growth of feathered frogs (frickens) in the local area.

I liked Alex from the off. He’s mostly less flippant and rather more serious than Verity (who I loved, but bubbly blonde ballroom dancer and asskicker is sailing very close to the wind in terms of setting off my This Is Why I Don’t Read Urban Fantasy alarms). Alex has Science to be getting on with, and it’s got interesting implications: if the frickens continue to out-breed the local amphibian population, they’re going to get noticed.

For once, we’re looking at cryptids who don’t have weird and wonderful powers – they really are just frogs with feathers. But that will be enough to turn human expectations on their head, and may open the floodgates to them noticing a world full of other inexplicable and previously undiscovered species…

Cryptids may go mainstream.

And if humans start looking at their neighbours more closely, they may realise a whole bunch of them are less human than they thought – and a lot more dangerous than feathered frogs.

Alex Price is trying to figure out how to stage-manage these discoveries to head off panic and genocide. He’s also trying to run the reptile house, breed basilisks and support a wadjet courtship, because a Price needs to keep busy. He’s trying very hard not to get too distracted by a fellow researcher – the rather attractive Shelby – with rather less success.

That’s enough storylines to have kept me entirely happy – I love this new perspective on Price involvement with the cryptid world, and the implications of humanity starting to notice who we share the world with. Almost sadly, this is pure world-building: the actual plot gets off to an unnerving start when Alex and Shelby find one of his assistants petrified in the bushes.

Cue the usual Price escapades. It’s a joy to see Seanan McGuire continue to foreground feisty female characters in spite of mixing it up with a male lead. Yes, there’s the inevitable UF romance angle (although I found myself fonder of slightly-awkward Alex’s inconvenient not-as-casual-as-it-should-be relationship than his sister Verity’s on-trope affair with the too-hot-to-resist enemy, however much I came to like Dominic De Luca), but add in gorgon assistant Dee, Alex’s cryptid grandparents, and his slowly-recovering cousin Sarah Zellaby (badly injured at the end of Midnight Blue-Light Special) and this is easily my favourite cast of any Incryptid novel so far. The scene in which Shelby meets Alex’s family had me in stitches, and Grandma Angela Baker is sheer delight.

I love the way this instalment expands the world. The previous two novels have had a hint of anything goes in New York City (would you notice if your neighbour never took his hat off because he had snakes for hair?); Columbus Ohio feels rather more small town, and the local cryptid population more subtle. No cryptid clubs with anatomically unexpected floor shows here. Instead, we spend most of our time worrying about a deeply-divided gorgon community, split between regular get-a-job hide-your-hair Pliny’s gorgons and a separatist farming community who would rather raise their own cockatrice, thank you very much. It’s fascinating.

I raced through the novel in a couple of days, setting aside my real-world stresses in favour of giggling. I may not be able to delay getting my hands on Pocket Apocalypse.