The title of this first volume in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series doesn’t have much to do with what’s inside. I was expecting something along the lines of Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series: contemporary fantasy set in the land of the dollar store. It actually has more in common with a couple of my favorite TV series, The Librarians or the later seasons of Supernatural.
For one thing, it’s set in Manhattan, which is as urban as urban fantasy can get. For another, it’s casually, almost breezily erudite. Protagonist Verity Price is a cryptozoologist, and she was born into it. Her family is notorious in the hidden world of cryptids and human hunters, for having turned against the ancient, wealthy, and learned Covenant of St. George.
The Covenant is dedicated to hunting down and exterminating cryptids wherever they can be found. It’s driven dragons to extinction and is working on the many other species that live in, around, and under the human world. The Price family, and particularly the women—Price girls as Verity calls them—have chosen a different path.
Cryptids, the Prices believe, are not inherently evil. There are actual monsters that attack and endanger humans; those may have to be hunted and neutralized, and if necessary killed, for humans’ safety. But most cryptids are just trying to survive, and many of those are at least as intelligent as humans.
When a Price meets a cryptid, the first thing she tries to do is understand it. She won’t kill it if at all possible, and she will defend it against anyone else who might try to kill it. Her job is to protect cryptids, not to destroy them.
Most of Verity’s family has settled in Oregon, but Verity has convinced her parents to let her move to New York. She’s a cryptozoologist; she’s studying cryptids, which includes protecting them from humans and each other. She considers Manhattan her territory.
Verity makes a living as a cocktail waitress in a strip club staffed mostly by sentient cryptids and owned by Dave the bogeyman. She lives in an illegal sublet with a colony of talking, dancing mice who hail her loudly and continually as their priestess. But the real reason she’s in New York is because she’s trying to establish herself as a professional ballroom dancer.
The family does not either understand or approve of what they consider to be a hobby and a distraction. Verity most sincerely begs to differ. Dancing is her great love and her passion.
It’s also invaluable for her pursuit of the family business. Dancing and martial arts have a lot in common, giving her a distinct edge in strength, flexibility, and the art of concealing weapons in minimalist outfits. Not to mention the ability to fight in five-inch heels.
Cryptids in this world, like those in Cryptozoo, include creatures I would consider mythical: dragons, gorgons, basilisks, half-human and half-serpentine Nagas. Several of the characters are shifters, including one of Verity’s coworkers at the club, who is a Waheela: a Native American pixie-Goth girl who transforms into wolflike creature the size of a grizzly bear. Dave the bogeyman falls more into the category of urban legend, with his extreme creepitude and his fondness for darks—anti-light bulbs that shed darkness instead of light. And then there are the Madhura, beings who look completely human, but who live on honey and spices, and whose blood, like their personalities, is pure sweetness.
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McGuire pulls it all together with kickass worldbuilding and a gift for writing spot-on prose and lively, vivid, memorable characters. In this first of thirteen volumes (and more to come, I hope), McGuire gives us a whole new take on dragons: who they are, what they are, how they think, and how they reproduce. It’s not anything I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of dragons.
And then there’s Cousin Sarah, who is what’s called a cuckoo. She looks human, but her blood is clear and has quasi-magical properties. She’s a telepath; she can manipulate humans and other sentient creatures into doing whatever she wants them to do. She lives wherever she wants, and takes whatever she pleases. She’s almost completely invisible and imperceptible, unless she chooses otherwise.
She has her own morality. She may not pay for coffee, but she’ll make sure to tip the barista. She’s strongly loyal to Verity and the Price family; when her particular talents are most needed, she gives them freely, no matter the cost to herself. She’s a fundamentally good person.
Not every cryptid is. And yet, Verity believes in giving them the benefit of the doubt. That’s the Price way, and no matter how much she may want to make it in the world of competitive dance, Verity is first and foremost a Price girl. She’ll always be there for the cryptids.