|Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/|
Orbit, 27 July 2017
Cover and design by Will Staehle
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
For me, this was one of those knock out, near perfect books that - in any genre - comes along all too rarely. This time it's urban fantasy, but urban fantasy as seldom seen: smart, grounded, fresh and funny. As if to underline the difference, the cover itself is strange and beautiful. It's woodcut-y, stylised, with a touch of the macabre medieval - but modern detail in the background, as if one of those broadsides from the days of the Great Plague had come back to haunt us. (Once you've read this book you'll beleiev it might).
Excellent, unearthly work from Will Staehle who I last spotted illustrating this.
Strange Practice introduces us to Dr Greta Helsing, doctor to the monsters of London. Whether she's preparing surgery on a mummy whose bones are showing 2,000 years of wear (the proper spells will be used, naturally), treating a baby ghoul for an ear infection or, indeed, helping the leader of the ghoul tribe with his depression, Greta is there, dedicated to her patients, doing the job she loves, carrying on her father's work. She is a doctor, and monsters are, as she explains at one stage to a troubled vampire, people.
Ah. Vampires. Van Helsing and vampires. That must be the, er, meat of the story? Stakes, garlic and deserted churchyards? Because in this book we have not only vampires but, indeed, vampyres as well. (The difference is the diet).
Actually, no. Greta's relationship with Ruthven (he prefers you drop the "Lord") and (Sir Francis) Varney is civilized, professional and respectful. Her relationship with old friend of the family and former demon Fastitocalon is tender. These are, as I said, people and Shaw is excellent at portraying a whole society, by necessity a shadowy and secretive one (the threat of pitchforks and flaming torches is never far away) but complete in itself, a vital part of London and with its own pulse, its own hierarchy, its own personalities. You sense all that just as you sense modern London too.
Greta is unusual in being a normal human who inhabits this world, but she's not the only one. We also meet Cranswell, researcher at the British Museum (useful) who with Greta, Ruthven, Varney and Fass, is going to take on something rather nasty and rather unusual in this book. And Greta has a couple of assistants who help out with her practice - one of them a witch.
Because the balance between monstrous and mundane London has been upset by a series of killings of both humans and monsters. The threat is coming closer and closer to home. As with the monsters, and with Greta, Shaw sketches a frighteningly plausible brood of troublemakers, determined to upset the harmony of a diverse London, and whom our new friends must confront.
And behind them is something even worse.
The resulting story is just right - it has tension where it's needed, a dash of humour, it doesn't take itself too seriously and it takes an honest look at the difficulties such a varied group of beings would encounter (in particular there's a real touch of sadness about Varney, who is pretty hard on himself and sees nothing good in his life). And it's a well-plotted, satisfying mystery too.
Along the way, Shaw nods to some classic vampire (and vampyre) literature - Dracula, obviously, but also the writings of Polidori and others, taking characters from earlier books which then become backstory (you can do this with Victorian classics if your protagonists are near immortal bloodsuckers!) That helps to round out her characters and give a sense of reality outside this book.
So, a rollicking adventure with real substance, rooted enough in the traditions of the genre to have real weight, while also firmly located in the modern world. Combine this with sharp writing and great characters and - since this is described as the first Greta Helsing novel - you have what promises to be a great series.
Oh - and there's a real surprise towards the end, when a most unexpected character turns up who will, I suspect, be back...