Now, I am going to come right out and say that I am a fan of Angela Slatter’s work and so I may be a tad biased in this review. However, I will also try to capture some of the magic and wonder that she traps withing her prose, so that you will appreciate why I am such a fan. To make things easier to express myself, I will dedicate my opinions to the successes or failures of her setting, her characters, her plot, her themes, and her style. I will also try very hard not give away any spoilers.
Setting: Brisvegas, better known as Brisbane, is one of the stars of this narrative. Angela Slatter lives and works in Brisbane, and it shows in the authenticity of her descriptions of various locations used in her book. She has turned our city – as I have lived and worked in inner Brisbane myself and still live in a satellite city – into a place where the phantasmagorical creatures of myths and legends mix with the Normals (the non-magical humans, the muggles) of the city. She evokes the atmosphere of each of her locations with a fine eye for detail, inserting just enough fantasy to transform the real-life locations into something new and strange. Her love poem to the Shingle Inn was worth the ticket money alone.
Her use of an ordinary city reminded me of the work of Charles de Lint, and in particular his Newford book cycle. He sets many of his books in the urban setting of his generic North American/Canadian city of Newford, and – like Slatter – peoples the city with the Fey and the Fantastic. By setting her narrative within the restrictions of a real and familiar city, Angela Slatter is able to increase the verisimilitude of her characters and action; she also manages to make Brisbane seem exotic to a local like myself.
Characters: I fell in love with the main protagonist right from the start, as she is supernaturally strong, while remaining very human in her basic nature. Verity is also impulsive and has a well-tuned shit-detector, which gets Verity into and out of trouble. My only nit-pick is that her romantic interest is just a little too perfect. He needs a flaw or two, because I tend to suspect such a lovely person of having a hidden agenda.
All the human and supernatural characters are well delineated, even though some the supernatural folk had dreadful-to-pronounce traditional names. I admired the way the personalities of the mythological folk actually suited their legendary roles … I believe I can mention that the sirens are flighty without giving anything away. Angela Slatter uses their traditional roles as major plot points withing the narrative, so you have to stay alert. You can’t compare her characterisations to anyone else, because she uses such an original voice. The closest I could suggest would be Diana Wynne Jones; Verity reminds me of a grown-up version of Sophie Hatter from Howl’s Moving Castle; they both have a can-do attitude while working with such secretive friends and enemies.
Plot: This is a whodunnit, with the protagonist and her team trying to juggle several cases at once. It reminded of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, with all the multiple story-lines kept apart and creating tension with the various mysteries running parallel to each other. There is plenty of action and excitement, while at the same time we explore Verity’s unique position as a Halfling who works within the fractures between the supernatural and the ‘Normal’ worlds. ( I read the book in a day, by simply not doing anything else.)
Themes: Surprisingly, the main theme I took away from this book is how your family and friends are what makes you who you are. I wasn’t expecting a whodunnit to have such a profound underlying discourse, but then, Angela Slatter never works on just one level.
Style: Angela’s prose is always quite lyrical, but in this, her first novel, she has toned down the poet without losing her ability to toss away clever, clever sentences. I tend to grunt with approval whenever I read something clever, and my family must have thought I had a major gut ache with the amount of grunting I did while reading this book. One or two sentences made me punch the air and then quietly howl because I want to be that clever. I am not using the word ‘clever’ in the trite sense either, but in the sense that Angela Slatter is a mistress of the written word and it shows.
I can recommend this book to anyone who loves a gripping story with or without supernatural creatures to leaven the story.