Fans of kick-ass heroines and well written characters rejoice! Hollywood types may be trying to resurrect Buffy the Vampire Slayer sans Willow, Xander, or Joss Whedon, but they have yet to infiltrate the printed page and dumb down a book like Margert Ronald's Spiral Hunt, a slyly inventive, chock-full-of-fun urban fantasy that, like Buffy, blends myth, humor and pop-culture into a fascinating bit of geek entertainment. Throw in a resourceful, charismatic, three-dimensional heroine and the Buffy comparison becomes even more apt. Make no mistake, however: Ronald's vision of a myth-infused Boston is no warmed-over Sunnydale.
First off there's our heroine: Evie Scelan, an independent courier who possesses the ability to track down lost persons or artifacts using her sense of smell. Nicknamed "the Hound," Evie tries to steer clear of any overt magical doings, afraid of being sucked into Boston's "undercurrent" where a sinister organization called the Fiana holds sway like an otherworldly mob. However, a midnight phone call from her ex-boyfriend Frank soon has her using her unique ability to get to the bottom of several mysteries. Is Frank dead or alive? Are the Fiana gaining a larger influence over Boston? And why are so many denizens of the undercurrent turning up dead, their bodies carved with curious spiral patterns? Evie proves to be an ideal sleuth, not only because of her numerous connections in the undercurrent, but because Ronald makes her so much fun to read.
"No one ever calls in the middle of the night if they have good news," begins Evie's first person narration. She could be the daughter of a Raymond Chandler character. But the hard-boiled front she puts on is exactly that. As the story takes off running, Ronald shows us the many layers beneath Evie's carefully cultivated exterior. It's refreshing to find an urban-fantasy heroine more concerned with her earthly family (the death, by cancer, of Evie's mom several years before still haunts her) than her hot vampiric/faerie/incubus love interest and even more refreshing to find one capable of declaring: "I'd been deemed 'unfuckable' awhile back and had seen nothing to contest that assessment" (p. 40). Unlike Anita Blake or a host of other dark fantasy alpha-females Evie isn't motivated by sex. She has more practical matters to attend to: juggling two jobs, worrying whether she'll get a friend involved in the undercurrent and fending off the advances of unwanted beaus like her chatty high-school acquaintance Will Chandler ("'If I hadn't known what he was drinking I'd have said it was triple espresso,' she quips, watching him down a beer." [p. 53]) If this sounds a little too mundane, fear not, the mysterious and magical love interest soon materializes along with a host of supernatural baddies bent on making Evie's life—and the lives of her close knit circle of friends—a living hell.
What really works about Spiral Hunt are Ronald's characters. There are a lot of them and every one of them stands out—no mean feat when you can still spot the original cliché beneath the skin. Evie's friend Sarah, for example, is a wiccan who runs a magic shop but her scenes with Evie have a decidedly somber, working-class (as opposed to carefree-hippy) tone. Here they discuss Evie's penchant for giving out her real name to clients of her growing retrieval business—something no magically gifted person should do:
"It's not even just the magic [Sarah said]. There's identity theft . 'Net stuff, all that jazz. If you're going to make this thing into a paying job, you gotta remember those things too."
"I'm not yet sure how well it'll fly as a job." I scooped up a handful of cedar icons and let them patter through my fingers onto the counter. "I made rent this month and last month, but it's anyone's guess how long that will last." (p. 14)
Such pragmatic concerns, related amidst a story that soon has figures from Celtic mythology popping up right and left, gives the novel a grounded realism that carries over even to those moments where characters go off on magical tangents. When someone like Sarah begins riffing on aspects of the triple goddess her interest comes off as a side effect from having lived in the heart of Boston: a cultural mecca with convenient access to BU and MIT. In other words, magic chose the characters, not the other way around. They're a product of their environment—and of a city Ronald surely knows and loves. She deftly captures the feeling of Boston's diverse population, its heady atmosphere of history, academia and good old working-class Americana and her characters read like the logical inhabitants of this landscape, whether she's describing Evie's moody MIT friend Nate, or a low-life named Leon who sells off stolen artifacts from his fellow magicians (here called "adepts") in a parking lot below Boston Common:
Leon Fisher had probably been an attractive man once. There were the remnants of an athletic body in the way he moved, like a high school track star who had gone to seed, and I guessed that he'd once had the boyish good looks of wholesome young stars on Christian TV . . . his hair was currently a mash of several different dyes, including one sideburn that might have been his natural color. Leon'd still be trying to look like a young punk when he was sixty. (p. 30).
One of the more fascinating aspects of the novel is how Ronald weaves so much Celtic mythology into her urban setting. Boston with its history of Irish immigrants is a logical place for a faery cabal to pop up and hence many of Ronald's characters, like Leon, tend to have more than a few connections to the likes of Finn MacCool and other legendary figures from the Green Isle. Leon's last name, "Fisher," of course, references the legend of the Fisher King, said to have originated with the Celts. An important figure in the latter half of the novel, Mrs. Crowe, is connected to the Celtic Goddess of Death (and carrion!), The Morrigan. Ronald has as fine a time with these tiny flourishes as she does with the bigger set pieces: Evie's encounter with the famed Each Uisich (a horse-like water spirit fond of biting) and the fertility spirit Sheena-na-gig. Both these creatures are easily recognizable to mythology buffs but Ronald's treatment of them is refreshing. To say more would give away the fun—but part of the secret is how unexpectedly utilitarian many of the novel's mythical aspects turn out to be. And Ronald, like Whedon, is very good at subverting our expectations of the mythic and supernatural. This tension—between revering and undercutting the seriousness of mythic traditions—provides some nice comic moments. "Your average magician is more paranoid than a convention of conspiracy theorists," Sarah observes during one memorable exchange (p. 185). It's to Ronald's immense credit that she can show us the wit and scrap of her characters and then turn around and scare us with more otherworldly fare. A trip into the heart of the Fiana's underground lair to find a stolen child grows swiftly unsettling as Evie uncovers a nightmare warren of tunnels and a series of magical perversions of (literally) mythic proportions. And a showdown underneath Fenway Park is far more grim than the description implies. Evie's ability to scent things adds to the tension, Ronald's descriptions of musty tombs, Back-Bay mud, and inhuman faerie people creating a witchy sensory landscape you can easily get lost in. It's a unique ability for a unique heroine—and if the closing paragraphs are any indication, there's more to come.
This is a happy thought. There's tons of fun to be had with Evie and her friends but there's also a great deal of emotional resonance. Evie's past relationship with Frank and her continuing unrest regarding the death of her mother prove to be far more than authorial tools to build character. The way Ronald effortlessly ties everything together at the end is not only satisfying, but masterful. I've now reviewed several novels that might classify as urban fantasy (Tim Pratt's Blood Engines, Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures, Wilkins's Rosa and the Veil of Gold)—Spiral Hunt is the first work of that genre I've read that allowed me to forget it was adhering to certain conventions (i.e. the tough heroine, the inclusion of the ancient world in an urban setting or vica versa) and just let me sink into the experience. Next time Evie's on the prowl, you can count me in.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.