Discount Armageddon is the first book of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, and it’s basically what Dresden Files would be if it weren’t terribly written by a terrible person. It’s cheesy pulp urban fantasy, but it’s also sharp-witted and self-aware, and stars a competent protagonist whose whole MO is that she’s not a murderous psycho. If I were in a better way I’d really want to do a Let’s Read of it, because it’s such a great counterexample of fluff done well. I honestly loved it; it was tightly written, the complete opposite of high art, and lots of fun.
Incidentally, the old guy at the register at the Harvard COOP gave me a shitfuckton of condescension for buying this book while talking to my husband about how Clearly Learned he was for his purchase, and fuck that guy.
Verity Price was born to a family of renegade monster hunters, but all she really wants to do is… dance. So she heads to New York City from Oregon against the advice of her parents and takes up with the local urban fantasy scene while competing in ballroom dancing contests under a false identity. Hijinks ensue.
It’s a pretty typical setup that goes off in some interesting directions and is helped along by truly empathetic narration and likeable characters. The Magi Association (aka the ‘Covenant’) sees nonhuman creatures are unholy abominations and inherent threats to society, and is focused on their extermination. Verity’s family, several generations back, defected from the Association because they could no longer support the wanton killing of sentient — never mind sapient — creatures. They were branded as traitors, heretics, and lunatics, and have been in hiding ever since, all while helping the supernatural (‘Cryptid’) community.
If the book has an overarching lesson, it’s that we should seek to understand other cultures and ways of life before condemning them. But it doesn’t stop there — many Cryptids are still very afraid of Verity (and of humans in general), and despite showing understandable frustration sometimes, she always is clear that their distrust of her is understandable considering what her ancestors, and the current members of the Covenant, put them through. It’s okay for the oppressed to make assumptions about their oppressors for their own safety.
The book is also happy to make clear its parallel to real-world race relations (there’s a great scene where a family answers the ‘Did you move here from India?’ question with basically, ‘We’re from San Jose and we speak perfect English, are you stupid?’). I thought having the oppressive organization stood-in for by a Generic White Guy was a good move, but I think the overall message would have been better if the Price family weren’t white. There weren’t any other human side characters and there were plenty of nonwhite human Cryptids who were basically just normal people with superpowers, but it did feel like it trended a bit toward the ‘nonwhites represented by nonhumans’ issue, if more lightly than would normally be considered a big problem. I was going to say expanding Verity’s human circle could solve this, but then you’d potentially hit ‘nonwhite sidekick’ territory, which honestly causes more problems than it fixes. Food for thought.
I also appreciated that this was a book where you couldn’t tell if people were evil just by looking at them. Hey, maybe if a very attractive women is angry at you, it’s because she has real reasons and not because she’s a vain jealous harpy, and we should be understanding toward her! What a concept. There’s a lot of positive female relationships in the book. And despite the fact that Verity spends a lot of time with little clothing on, the book spend more time talking about all the harassment women at strip clubs have to deal with than oogling them. What. A. Concept.
Anyway, there are two main plots going on: First, Verity finds out that the Covenant has sent a junior op to start murdering his way through the city when she gets caught in one of his traps. He is suitably hunky. Second, Cryptid women are vanishing, and no one knows why, but it doesn’t seem good. As Verity tries to decide whether bigoted hunks can be converted and thus are fuckable, she’s also trying to prevent her friends from being harmed by a snake cult.
I thought the book did a good job of portraying the hunk, Dominic, as a good person brought up to believe bad things, and I realize this isn’t the type of story where the hero doesn’t get to bang the hottie, but I thought thematically the book would have been a lot stronger if Verity and Dom really did part ways after the big row they had. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the message is that Verity’s love changes him — his own empathy and the inherent personhood of the people he comes to know does that — but I’m still wary of the ‘bigoted ass can be saved’ message when usually, it’s not nearly that simple. At the same time, like I said, he’s saved by his own choices from his own experiences, not by Verity and like, Magic Healing Vagina, and there is something in showing that even if you were brought up a certain way, you can be saved, but I’m not sure that’s the more useful of the two options in a world where people so caught up in prejudices can be truly dangerous.
I think it’s one of those unfortunate things where the subplot here is at the mercy of the greater canon, because unlike Elias or some other ‘redeemed’ type brooding hotties, Dom actually is a good person, but there’s already so many stories about boys being shown the ‘women/black people/gay people count’ light that it kind of falls flat, and a more countercurrent message is more useful because it’s more uncommon. But like I said, this is also the wrong genre for Verity to not bag the hunk, so it’s kind of a catch-22.
Also, gay people exist, which is nice, since that’s apparently a super-high bar in fiction, judging by what we’ve seen on this blog. Though it would have been super weird to have Verity be a dancer and somehow have zero gay men. It’s like an ice skating anime about straight dudes.
Anyway, I realize I’m now doing that thing where I only talk about the problems, but ‘maybe tripped some lite race trope implications?’ and ‘maybe tripped some lite women trope implications?’ are honestly the only two problems I have with the book. The writing was really tight, readable, and well-done while still being light and airy, with just enough cheese and genre-savvy to nod and wink at the reader. The plot was well-done with only one twist being kind of obvious (okay, two: she was obviously going to bang Dom), and it was clever and well-paced.
But yeah, the highlight of the book is really its empathy for other people. I liked Verity a lot. I liked how no matter how annoying the holy mice were, she was always kind and patient with them; I liked how the book tackled the ‘people =/= just humans’ thing head-on; I liked the amount of casually badass women of all different personalities; I liked the amount of research the author obviously put into ballroom dancing even though she only got to use it like once; I liked that women were allowed to be sexy without being evil or subhuman; I liked how many nationalities from all over the world were represented in Verity’s social circle; I liked how much all the characters had to say about how stupid the idea of sacrificing virgins is. I also like the glimpses we got of Verity’s badass grandmothers, and that her grandfather is the one that has to be rescued, and that there’s actually old women who are allowed to be out doing things like actual people instead of being written out of existence.
I also thought the monster variation was nice, with everything from tanukis to strygas to medusae. She also seems to have done her research to make up creatures, like the Madhura, a Cryptid originally from India — the name derives from the Hindi and Urdu word for ‘honey’, and the Madhura are human-like creatures who subsist on sugar and syrup. The cuckoo thing was interesting, if I bit hodgepodge. The book takes a ‘supernatural creatures evolved just as we did’ route with the wordlbuilding, and handwaves how few of them there are via the Covenant doing mass exterminations, which at the very least was good enough for my suspension of disbelief. I realize I’m not the most strident person about this kind of thing here, so, YMMV.
Anyway, I thought this book was a great counterpoint to all the Dresdening, and might be worth checking out. Enjoy!