Midnight Blue-Light Special is the second book in Seanan McGuire's InCryptid series, following the exploits of Verity Price—a cryptozoologist and sometime ballroom dancer—living in New York City. Once upon a time, Verity's great-great grandparents belonged to the Covenant, a religious order of brutal, zealous monster-hunters, from which they defected when they realized that most of the monsters they'd been trained to destroy, apart from being inhuman and a little creepy, weren't really all that monstrous. Ever since then, Verity's clan has been plying their cryptozoological expertise on the sly, dodging the Covenant where possible, researching and protecting various cryptid species, polishing their weaponry, and otherwise pursuing an interesting sideline in dangerous, harebrained schemes and familial bickering. In the first book, Discount Armageddon (2012), Verity's attempts to pursue her dancing career were put on hold when a Covenant agent, Domininc De Luca, arrived in her city—and swiftly found himself falling for the enemy. Several weird adventures and an unfortunate encounter with a snake-worshipping cult later, not only Dominic and Verity's relationship, but the safety of every cryptid in New York is threatened by the imminent arrival of yet more Covenant agents, come to check on Dominic's progress and begin their purge of the city. With Dominic's allegiance under question and the people she loves in the line of fire, Verity must do everything she can to avert disaster—and to finally decide what she's willing to sacrifice.
To call McGuire a prolific writer would be something of an understatement. Since 2009, she's published an extraordinary eleven novels—all six volumes in the October Daye series, both InCryptid novels, and the Newsflesh trilogy (under the pseudonym Mira Grant)—with a twelfth, the latest October Daye installment, forthcoming later this year. And that's before you include her various short story collections, anthology contributions, essays and novellas. She is, in short, a creative force, and one with a very distinctive literary style. That style, however, is one of the reasons why it's important to discuss McGuire's many works en masse, because as disparate as her characters are in terms of setting and motivation, they all tend to speak with a single voice—that is to say, with McGuire's voice, identifiable as such by even a quick comparison with her blogging. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing—it is, after all, a smart, engaging voice, redolent with witty snark—it runs the risk of becoming monotone. The fact that all her published novels are written in the first person is an exacerbating factor: both in terms of spoken dialogue and internal narration, her characters, and particularly her female protagonists, have a disconcerting tendency to blur together.
As complaints go, this is hardly unique; and given the fact that McGuire is predominantly an urban fantasy writer, it arguably ties into wider concerns about the homogeneity of the subgenre's heroines. Indeed, one of the reasons that Verity Price so appeals to me as a character is the extent to which she represents a departure from McGuire's usual mold of broken bird, cursed with awesome characters. Instead of the otherwise requisite traumatic past, cynically depressive outlook and caffeine addiction—all of which are shared by the eponymous October Daye and the Newsflesh trilogy's Mason siblings—Verity is possessed of a functional, happy family and a love of dance. (It's worth noting, however, that all McGuire's protagonists have the same relationship with food as most urban fantasy heroines: that is, they never cook, eat properly only when hounded, and otherwise live off takeout. Cynically, I have my suspicions as to why this trope is so ubiquitous: though ostensibly subversive of traditional femininity, the domestic incompetence of an otherwise capable heroine renders her just vulnerable enough to justify male protectiveness.)
These concerns aside, what sets McGuire apart—what has always set her apart—is the detail, scope and sheer creativity of her worldbuilding. In the InCryptid series, this manifests as an intricate, interesting and thoroughly unique family history for Verity—complete with adoptive cryptid relatives, a dimension-hopping grandmother, a sister obsessed with laying traps and at least one ghost—and a lengthy catalog of compelling cryptids to populate the setting. Some of them, like the bogeymen and dragon princesses, are either based on or directly inspired by human mythology, while others, such as the Aeslin mice, are wholly original. The mice, in fact, are my favorite thing about the series, and quite arguably the single best thing McGuire has ever created, which is saying something. A Pratchett-esque species of cheerful, talking, sentient mouse whose complex religious beliefs and colony structures have resulted in their worship of Verity's family (to say nothing of the creation of a host of hilarious festivals and commandments in their honor, such as the Commandment to Not Ignite the Domicile), the Aeslin are a sweet, hilarious breath of fresh air in a genre that oftentimes takes itself far too seriously.
When it comes to the rest of Midnight Blue-Light Special, however, despite a strong beginning and several good moments afterwards, the whole is, well . . . disorganized. At the top of her game, McGuire is a writer to be reckoned with, landing stone-cold emotional blows in quick succession while simultaneously stringing laugh-out-loud moments alongside lush descriptions, knife-sharp badinage and quickfire action sequences. At her worst, she's prone to textually dense infodumping, the ad nauseam repetition of specific jokes and background details, indulgent dialogue-heavy chapters, surplus melodrama and an excess of internal monologuing. While Discount Armageddon belongs more to the former species, and is therefore my personal favorite of her novels, Midnight Blue-Light Special is much more akin to the latter—far moreso, I think, than anything else McGuire has written.
Plot-wise, the biggest problem is with how little actually happens. Though the characters spend much of the novel talking endlessly about how bad things are, it ends up being a case of all tell, no show, with more tension implied through conversation than actually seems to exist. Dominic's warring loyalties are a case in point: though Verity constantly worries where his true allegiance lies, there's nothing in his actions to demonstrate the indecision and unreliability that both narration and dialogue insist he's feeling, which completely undermines any sense of emotional suspense. It doesn't help that he's absent for much, if not most of the story, with Verity's visiting Uncle Mike occupying the space—both physical and narrative—that might otherwise have been Dominic's. Mike, though, is a poor substitute: he might be a realistically kind, protective family friend, but narratively, he's dead weight, contributing no tension to the story and no unique skills to the final confrontation. Meanwhile, the Covenant operatives, despite being hailed as death and terror incarnate, manage to wreak surprisingly little damage. For all the preparations taken to halt their predations, their reputation far outstrips the reality, and given that fear of their presence is not only the primary motivation for every other character, but the central plot of the book, their ultimate ineffectiveness can't help but be disappointing.
Less significant, perhaps, but nonetheless irksome: in what constitutes the most grating display of repetition since the interminable "poking zombies with sticks" line in Feed (2010), the character Istas—a carnivorous cryptid shapeshifter called a waheela—is constantly expressing her delight in, and anticipation of, carnage. The fact that her use of the word is invariably couched as a punchline only makes its iteration worse: every successive appearance makes the joke less funny while simultaneously painting the speaker as more and more of a caricature. So often is the line used, in fact, that McGuire actually hangs a lampshade on it: eventually, Istas's boyfriend chides her for the repetition, prompting her to agree to: "No referencing carnage more than once in a single conversation" (p. 233).
This isn't the only instance of repetition, either: on multiple occasions, some of them quite close together, we're reminded about various pieces of trivial information, such as the fact that cuckoos, a breed of (usually) sociopathic telepaths, have clear blood and so can't blush. There's also a rather odd scene in which Sarah—both a telepath and a beloved relative of Uncle Mike, who is himself a cryptozoologist—has to explain to Mike how telepathy works before he'll accept that the person she's vouching for is, in fact, trustworthy; and not just explain, but do so multiple times. It was a strange implausibility that sat uneasily with me, not only because it didn't feel realistic, but because the resulting, lengthy conversation stood out as so much filler.
Which brings me to my main problem with Midnight Blue-Light Special: for four crucial chapters, the novel's narration swaps over from Verity's viewpoint to that of her adoptive cuckoo cousin, Sarah. The switch in point of view is announced so briefly, in the same header that's been used throughout the book to tell us, rather redundantly, where that chapter is set, that an eager reader could easily miss it. It wasn't until I turned the page and saw Verity being discussed in the third person that I realized something had changed, but as the voice remained static, each successive section break left me wondering which narrator was speaking. Sarah sounds identical to Verity because the vast majority of McGuire's female characters talk and sound exactly like their author—at least as far as sarcastic phraseology goes, which is quite a way, given its prevalence in her writing. And while this has never been a problem before, precisely because these similar-yet-disparate characters occupy separate worlds and series, it becomes a major issue when you put two of them in the same novel and have them speak from the same perspective. It immediately transitions the phenomenon from "distinctive literary quirk" to "limited literary range." For instance, while it makes sense for Verity, a cryptozoologist, to pepper her narration with interesting asides about cryptid biology, it makes vastly less sense for Sarah, a cuckoo mathematician, to do likewise. And yet, that's exactly what we get: a series of scientific mini-infodumps telling us what cuckoos are, instead of a first-person cuckoo perspective showing us what that actually means in practice. True, there are some small concessions to Sarah's differences, such as her attentiveness to the "emotional weather" of other characters, but these are few and far between, and ultimately don't compensate for the fact that our inhuman, cryptid narrator has an inner monologue that's tonally identical to that of her human, cryptid-studying cousin.
Doubtless, the prolonged separation from Verity is meant to heighten the tension that directly preceded her absence; instead, it pulls the reader away from an interesting plotline to an uninteresting one, and slows down the pace at exactly the point when it ought to be speeding up. Sadly, the novel never really recovers from this, and rapidly loses cohesion. Unusually for McGuire, the penultimate action sequences are incredibly confused: the physical space is pivotal, yet described so sparsely that it's almost impossible to visualize the events, and if you so much as blink, you'll miss the relevant exits and entrances of the other characters. The ending itself feels simultaneously rushed and oversimplified, as does the emotional catharsis: everything is just a bit too easy for how much angst has preceded it, and yet that simplicity is ultimately in keeping with how little really happened.
Still, it's not all bad news. The Aeslin mice alone are worth the price of the book—"HAIL THE ABSENCE OF FIRE!" (p. 47)—and McGuire on a bad day is still an energetic, wildly original writer. More importantly for the future InCryptid books, while Midnight Blue-Light Special might be light on plot and a bit shambolic near the end, it certainly succeeds at broadening our knowledge of both the Price family and the wider cryptid world, with plenty of new information dropped tantalizingly into the narrative that will doubtless be expanded on in the future. If there's one thing McGuire does almost as well as worldbuilding, it's sowing the seeds of a complex long game played between a decent-sized cast of characters, and that's something I consistently appreciate in her work. When the later developments in myriad urban fantasy series so often seem dissonant with the rules laid out in the earlier volumes, it's refreshing to encounter a writer with both a genuine commitment to planning ahead and a reputation for pulling it off, and in this respect, I've no doubt that future InCryptid novels will be true to form.
In conclusion, then, while Midnight Blue-Light Special certainly isn't the best book McGuire's ever written, with the second half falling lamentably prey to the worst of her literary idiosyncrasies, it's ultimately still a fun, quick read that serves to move the series along. With plenty of solid groundwork laid for future stories, I'll definitely be continuing with the series—and, indeed, with whatever else McGuire produces next.
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. She blogs about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She is also the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt.