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5 October 2019

Review - Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

Cover by Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio
Grave Importance (Dr Greta Helsing, 3)
Vivian Shaw
Orbit, 24 September 2019
PB, e, 395pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Grave Importance to consider for review.

And there was war in heaven...

This is the third and final (though I hope "final" doesn't mean "forever") outing for Dr Greta Helsing, physician to the monsters of London, following her previous adventures in Strange Practice and Dreadful Company. In a satisfying twist on urban fantasy, Shaw has her hero treat all manner of supernatural beings, from vampires to mummies to ghouls, at her practice in Harley Street. And in the course of this she is often required to save the world - as you are - whether this involves negotiating with demons or hunting through abandoned tunnels in Paris or London.

Throughout everything, Helsing remains outwardly cool, professional and level-headed, even if she's screaming inside. Her medical training may help, or the fact that she's found love with Sir Francis Varney, a notorious Vampyre (note the spelling) in his day who together with his vampire (note the spelling) friend (Lord) Edmund Ruthven and the demon, Fastitocalon, constitute a kind of ragged family for the orphaned Greta.

It certainly helps that in Grave Importance, Greta's been invited to stand in as Medical Director at Oasis Natrun, a luxury spa and clinic for mummies located on the French Riviera. Here the thousands of year old creatures can have their bandages rewound. Perished and powdered bones, tendons and muscles are replaced. There are even cures for ancient diseases that plague their preserved organs. The facilities are impressive (the place its own helicopter!), the accommodation even more so, and Greta can really enjoy herself applying cutting-edge procedures. All seems to be going well... until Ruthven suffers a mysterious illness, and Greta's mummy patients begin collapsing.

What can be wrong this time?

In an elegantly paced and absorbing adventure, Shaw reveals a new threat to the stability of the universe, one considerably more menacing than anything Greta and the gang have come up against yet. It is an utterly cosmic, appalling danger, a mine quietly laid decades before and which, it seems, it is beyond the capacity of mere humans - or vampires - to defuse. Which raises the question, what do you do at the end of all things, Sam? As readers of the previous books will know, Shaw is mischievously inventive with her quotes and references:

'"This is Hell?" Nadezhda asked, her eyes still too wide.
"Nor are we out of it," said another voice, and they turned to see a stocky man in a surgical gown... The woodcuts didn't really do him justice. "Johannes Faust. You're Helsing?"'

Indeed, there's a sense in which all the main characters here are references, to name only a few, you'll recognise the name Helsing of course and both Varney and Ruthven were chronicled - mischronicled, they'd say stiffly if asked - in classic Victorian horror literature.

Ranging from London to New York to the South of France to the very towers of Hell - and the Nacreous Gate of Heaven - this book is certainly conceived on a grand scale, allowing Greta and her allies full rein to be the characters they have grown to be over these books. That's especially true for  Greta, as she helps out in a very different sort of hospital than the one she's used to, but Varney faces up to his wicked past and both Cranswell and Grisaille play a roguish part. There's a touch of the caper about the book, a dash of romance and a real moral heart behind the wisetalking: at one level Grave Importance is showcasing the everyday virtue of just getting on with it, doing what you can, not giving up, at another it takes that message and transcends it completely, making the whole point one of never giving in to despair, never believing oneself irredeemable, never losing heart.

Oh, and - as mentioned above - Dr Faust is here too. Haven't you always wanted to meet him?

Overall, a fun and fitting end to this trilogy. It has a simpler, more pared down plot that the preceding books, focussing a bit more on character, which I rather enjoyed but best of all there's lots of Greta but at the same time the story is still told on an epic scale. Shaw crams a lot into this book, paradoxically though that still left me wanting more - for example I could have done with more plot around Van Dorne, perhaps: a fascinating character with a fascinating history who plays a significant role here but doesn't really get much airtime.

And finally: like the previous books this has a simply gorgeous cover, the woodcut style giving a very authentic feel of classic horror slightly subverted by the detail of the illustrations. I think Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio have worked wonders here).

For more about the book, including links to buy, see the publisher's website here.

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