Meet Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead.
After inheriting a highly specialised, and highly peculiar, medical practice, Dr Helsing spends her days treating London’s undead for a host of ills: vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s dreamed of since childhood.
But when a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human undead and alike, Greta must use all her unusual skills to keep her supernatural clients – and the rest of London – safe.
There is a fine tradition in crime fiction, going back as far as Doctor John Watson if not further, of doctors acting as, or alongside, murder investigators. There’s a long tradition in urban fantasy of crime plots, from Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire through to less known authors. What Strange Practice does, what Vivian Shaw’s innovation is, is bringing those two things together.
Strange Practice is essentially a kind of whodunnit, albeit with a lot of supernatural elements. A killer is attacking supernatural creatures with weapons actively designed to destroy them as rapidly as possible, at the same time as another killer is stalking humans and killing them in ritualistic ways – and they might be the same killer. Much of Shaw’s narrative is actually revealed in the blurb of the novel, unfortunately, in that regard; but who those monks are, and why they’re doing it, and the cosmology involved, are more interesting that that bald plot summary makes them sound. Shaw has clues planted for the reader and repeatedly calls back to earlier brief mentions in the course of the investigation undertaken by Greta and her group of allies, and manages that well.
Greta and her allies are what really makes the novel. Strange Practices has quite a large central cast of six, leaning overwhelmingly male, although the secondary characters balance that out a little more; but they’re all fantastic and fascinating individuals, many drawn from gothic and horror literature. Greta herself is really well written, with her desire to make sure the supernatural community in London is safe and taken care of fighting her curiosity and desire to actively protect, rather than heal, that community. Her personal life is a bit of a mess, and Shaw really ties that into her general commitedness to her job as a whole person, a really well done bit of writing.
Ruthven, Varney and Fastitolacon (Fass) are the three supernatural members of Team Helsing; two vampires from classic gothic works, and a supernatural being whose nature only becomes clear late in Strange Practice, and that Shaw works with really well. Their different personality types are fascinating, and their relationships with Greta are really well drawn; the way that Shaw treats developing attractions, and the way she treats paternal care, are so true to life it almost hurts.
They’re far from the only things that go bump in the night in a book that also has ghouls, mummies, rusalka and more in. Strange Practice sits interestingly in the continuum of monstrous urban fantasy; different creeatures have different reactions to being a monster, and one of Shaw’s innovations is making those parallel to different kinds of queerness, in many ways: self-hatred, assimilationism, and holding oneself apart in a separate society entirely. Different characters of the same kind of being are allowed different reactions, and none are judged for it – though society is judged for putting them in that position, at times. The mundanity of their problems is also brilliant – a ghoullet with an ear infection, for instance, or mummies with arthritis and bone problems; Shaw has a real flair for the medical side of the book, and the ghoullet is incredibly adorable.
If there’s a flaw in Strange Practice, it’s that it tries a little too hard at times. The descriptions are architecture are atmospheric and powerful, and usually accurate, but at times end up feeling trite; the level of trope-laden weather and scenic cliches abounds, at times feeling far too dense – tripes both about gothic weather and about British weather, sometimes clashing; and occasionally, Shaw shows off how clever she is a little too much by making unsubtle literary allusions that don’t work very well.
In all, though, Strange Practices is a fun novel, and a great new take on an old idea in urban fantasy; I want to hear more from Vivian Shaw about Dr Greta Helsing and her work with the supernatural community of London, especially the medical side.
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