DAW, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0811-4
Half-Off Ragnarok is part of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, which revolves around the Prices, a family of cryptozoologies who also happened to be armed to the teeth and can bust out some mean kung-fu crap on rear ends belonging to both humans and spooks. You can read about the Prices in my review of the first book in this series. While this is the third book in the series, it’s a fresh start as it shifts scenery and moves on to a new Price, so it’s a good place to start for anyone new to the series but is unable to read the previous books. There are some spoilers for previous books in this book, but you’d only know that they are spoilers if you have read those books. And knowing those spoilers won’t affect your enjoyment of those books, so really, this one is as good as a standalone story.
Now that Verity has settled down with her boyfriend, we move on to her older brother, Alexander. Unlike Verity who does her thing among town spooks, he carves out his niche in non-urban cryptids. He’s currently working at the West Columbus Zoo in Ohio, in charge of the reptile house while secretly trying to maintain a basilisk breeding program in its perimeters. His personal assistant is a gorgon, and his pet companion is a griffon. Other than these, life isn’t that unusual. Well, maybe except for the occasional jaunts into the swamps to give giant worms and other spooks some smackdown.
He’s currently seeing a fellow newcomer to the staff, the Australian zoologist Shelby Tanner, but she’s dropping very obvious hints that she’d like their relationship to go beyond their current status of just dating and good sex. He is more than happy to upgrade their relationship too, but he is also hesitant because he hates to lie to her about his family and job. Already he needs to cancel their dates and hurt her feelings because there are things that he has to do after working hours that he can’t tell her about. This is why he doesn’t do long-term relationships, even though he’d really like to give the long-term thing a go with Shelby.
Things become interesting when dead bodies start showing up in the zoo and in the neighborhood. The victims (not all are human) show signs of petrification – something, maybe some things, turned them into stone before killing them. Alex checks, and to his relief, finds that his basilisks are still in hibernation where he left them. His gorgon assistant Dee is in the clear. So, something else that can do that stone thing is on the loose, and it’s up to Alex to stop more bad things from happening. Shelby is with him when the first victim is discovered, so he can’t keep her out of the picture. Interestingly enough, Shelby knows more about spooks than she is letting on.
Like the previous two books, Half-Off Ragnarok is a nice change of pace because we have fully human main characters instead of a human and some spook hooking up and kicking stuff together. There are no power upgrades here – the main characters rely on brawn and firepower, so nobody is getting any special superpowers at the end of each book – to create the inevitable point in the series where the hero and the heroine are practically the gods of the whole universe, no prophecy, no magic baby, no stalker werewolf king, no brooding vampire boss – none of all the played out baggage found in the typical urban fantasy series out there at the moment, in other words. The spooks respect Alex’s efforts to keep the balance by protecting both benign humans and cryptids – Alex’s viewpoint is akin to that of the druids in a typical fantasy RPG setting who believe that even predators have a place in nature, and should be exterminated only if they threaten the balance of the ecosystem and jeopardize the existence of other species – but they don’t bow down to his whims or treat him like he’s the savior of everyone. I like all this. It’s nice to have a story where the hero and the heroine aren’t obviously overpowered from the get go.
Alex is a pretty decent hero, and I always have a soft spot for nerdy action heroes. The cover art lies – Alex wear glasses in this story, and he’s far more armed that the lab pencil-pusher dude holding a tiny pistol on the cover. Shelby gets to show off her kick-ass skills now and then, but she’s a bit of a disappointment in that the author treats her also as a blank slate for Alex to dump information on. Given her background and her occupation, I have a hard time believing that she’s completely clueless about non-Australian cryptids. I especially scratch my head when Alex turns out to be more knowledgeable about wadjets – a woo-woo kind of cobra in this setting – than she. Cobras are Asian, and I have a hard time believing that an Australian cryptozoologist has no idea at all about the cryptids that exist in a neighboring continent. The author’s decision to have Shelby become the uninformed sidekick, so that Alex can dump information for readers to catch up on things – make it hard for me to take her seriously for what she is said to be. Other than that, she’s okay too.
The romance is pretty weak in the sense that the characters are already in a relationship of sorts when the story opens, and it’s just a matter of taking it to the next level. I don’t mind this at all, personally, as I don’t expect the whole nine yards from courtship to honeymoon when I open a book clearly indicated to be urban fantasy. Actually, I like this because the downplayed romance allows me to enjoy the rest of the story without being bothered by the characters circling around one another wondering when he’d call and when she’d put out. There are plenty of fascinating lore about the gorgons and other spooks here, and the story is well-paced enough to be entertaining.
I also like that the villain turns out to be something more low-key – not the usual megalomaniac bent on world domination – and even… well, I won’t say that this person is entirely sympathetic, given the person’s actions in the story, but I can understand why that person is pushed into doing all those things. When the person gets his just desserts, I feel sorry for him as much as I’m glad to see the whole story end with the good guys closing the case on a high note.
Half-Off Ragnarok sees the series bouncing back after the tepid previous book, so hurray once again for kick-ass cryptozoologists.