Trying to find a genuinely funny writer is hard at the best of times, but it seems to become substantially harder when the humor is offbeat or fantastical. Those Kim Harrison demon-hunter novels with their titles (The Outlaw Demon Wails, etc.) all riffing on Clint Eastwood movies strike me as a perfect example of an author (or at least a marketing team) who's trying too hard. (What's next? Dirty Sasquatch?) The task, seemingly required of the urban fantasy genre, of creating a milieu both supernatural and satirical without lapsing into cuteness, is not to be envied. And so it's all the more amazing when an author succeeds in cracking the code.
Margaret Ronald's second Evie Scelan novel, Wild Hunt (sequel to 2009's Spiral Hunt), continues to showcase the author's talent for combining drama, chills, and hilarity into a compulsively readable caper. Evie, a freelance investigator and descendent of Celtic heroes, remains a unique protagonist able to literally sniff out villainy with her enhanced sense of smell. Having become a major player in Boston's "undercurrent" since the last time we saw her, Wild Hunt finds her balancing the life of an ordinary working stiff with the realization that she may be the only person capable of keeping the bizarre and dangerous undercurrent in line. As Evie still sees herself more as stiff than savior, she soon grows cranky with encroaching fate. "Most of the time I'm fine with not knowing the secret name of Lilith," she declares at one point, "just so long as I do know to put my pants on before my shoes" (Wild Hunt ARC, p. 175). It's this combination of the mystical and mundane that worked so well in the last book, and it's in fine form here. A passage in which Evie prepares a ritual in order to trap a ghost who's been following her demonstrates Ronald's knack for seamlessly weaving together ancient folklore and modern day malaise:
The fountain in my office had gotten something stuck in it so that now it sounded like a naiad with asthma. It choked and sputtered when I thumped it, then went back to its usual arrhythmic flow. I scattered salt in the windowsills, bound a silver chair (well, mostly silver) at the foot of my bed, and, after a long search in the back of my cabinets, found half a jar of crystallized honey that I could leave out. No liquor, not in my house for the last ten years, though this was one of those times I felt the lack. Then I turned the lights off, lay down, and hoped that the party two doors down blasting "Destroyed Eighties Hits II" on repeat wouldn't affect my trap. (Wild Hunt ARC, p. 175)
The genius of writers like Ronald is that for them, humor isn't window dressing, but window—a view into the heart of their characters. Evie's not trying to be funny here, she is funny: a product of a world every bit as kooky as she is. Any reader with a heart of their own will be hard pressed not to fall in love with her. And that's good because, this time out, the ride isn't quite as smooth as the previous novel.
In Spiral Hunt Ronald focused exclusively on the Celtic underpinnings of her world, bringing in figures like Finn MacCool and Sheena-na-gig to harass Evie with their various supernatural plots and longings. Wild Hunt has no such uniformity. The plot seems haphazard and occasionally sloppy as Ronald tosses in everything from Chinese ghost mythology to visions of the Old West. There are complicated—and often incomprehensible—astrophysics involved as Evie encounters at least five separate kinds of ghost. There are instances of lycanthropy involving a magical wolf skin. There are museum heists and time travel and so many instances of petty crime involving undercurrent bottom-feeders that we soon lose any sense that these instances are part of the same story. They are—and Ronald's heroic last-act effort to tie everything together will probably work more for some readers than others—but since Evie makes her debut as a character so firmly tied to Irish myth, why doesn't Ronald use that convenient through-line to maintain continuity? At times she runs the risk of convincing her audience that anything goes in Evieland—a fact that almost undermines the fine work she's done in creating a sense of realism among her characters.
Fortunately those characters remain as nuanced as ever. Evie's beau-in-waiting, Nate, is an appealing love interest not only for his brooding mystery, but because, as a man with a troubled family life, his brooding actually makes sense. A sub-plot concerning Evie's cop friend, Rena, hits emotional pay-dirt as her conventional crime-fighting methods clash with Evie's and severely test their friendship. Nate's eight-year-old sister Katie also comes into her own here, her emerging powers of clairvoyance promising to pull more weight in Evie's subsequent adventures. And, of course, the whole tale is colored by Evie's evocative voice, by turns comic, hard-boiled, and sensual. Ronald certainly picked the right sense when she chose to base Evie's powers around her sense of smell, for she finds increasingly innovative ways of using that sensory power to shed light on every aspect of the story. Places, people, and even characters' motivations are given new depth when paired with the observations of Evie's keen nose. Facing off with the latest undercurrent scumbag beneath a rotting pier, Evie finds his corrupt odor so distasteful that she focuses instead "on the scent of dying marine creatures to keep from getting nauseated" (p. 88). And a trip to a museum to suss out some clues is easily the most breathtaking passage in the novel:
There were thousands of scents, thousands upon thousands, all clamoring for attention. Normally I disliked museums because of the way all the scents were muffled, stuffed behind glass, and here, yes, the physical scents were quiet. But the rest—incense, silk, oil of a hundred kinds, oil paints of a hundred kinds, stone competing with stone—I hadn't realized stone could have so many different scents, but now it was obvious how the sandstone of a carved lion differed from the marble of a sarcophagus. . . . My head spun, trying to make sense of everything that my nose caught. (ARC, p.186)
That last line acts as a nice metaphor for the book itself. Crammed with plots, characters, and heady descriptions it can make you a little dizzy at times, but treasures—even revelations—await those who don't mind a bit of exploring.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.
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