Sunday, January 12, 2014

Stray Souls by Kate Griffin

Kate Griffin
Orbit 2012

Reviewed by Carol
 ★   ★   ★   1/2

No doubt about it, Stray Souls was a fun, fast read, an urban fantasy exploration rife with British and topical humor, mostly about the self-help movement.  Which is, depending on your mood, either a strength or a weakness. Choose your timing accordingly.

Sharon is working as a coffee barista at a job she rather hates. She’s been making do, sharing a flat with two roommates and reading self-help books for encouragement. Mantra of choice: “I am beautiful. I am wonderful. I have a secret.” We meet her as she first rents St. Christopher Hall from the vicar, and then opens the inital meeting of Magicals Anonymous. We meet Rhys, an almost-druid with allergies; Kevin, the hypochondriac vampire (not that there’s anything wrong with that); Sally, the banshee who needs to use a whiteboard for conversation (her voice drives humans insane); Mrs. Rafaat, who isn’t at all magical but knows something is wrong with London; Chris, the non-confrontational exorcist; Jess who turns into a pigeons; Gretel, the gastronomic troll; and Mr. Roding, who seems to be aging fast enough to become one of his own necromantic subjects.
It turns out Mrs. Rafaat is spot on; spirits are disappearing in London. The Lady Greydawn is missing, and since her role in the city is to help maintain the division between seen and unseen, the gates to the unfriendlies are open. The Mayor of Midnight wants Sharon and Magicals Anonymous to find her and her over-large dog. To do so, Sharon will need to develop her shaman skills under the tutelage of a goblin (the world’s second [or third] best shaman), and Magicals Anonymous members will need to face their individual barriers to take action.

Clearly, such a cast of characters is ripe for fun, even if it feels a little like “X-Men: Island of Misfit Toys.” There are two problems with the misaligned alliance, one of which Griffin mostly avoids, and the other less successfully. First, when writing a semi-spoof, it’s a challenge to maintain the balance of funny and tension, especially when your plot line involves evil and murder. For the most part, Griffin successfully balances the two, a rare feat in urban fantasy. A supernatural quad of hired killers and a wendingo in disguise prove frightening, with just a touch of comedic. Second, if care isn’t taken to add character dimension, a composite cast risks becoming stereotypes, or even worse, single-note props. Rhys, Mr. Roding, Gretel and Sally turn out to be interesting people.  Jess and Chris are less explored, mostly serving to round out the team, and Kevin becomes the one-note character. I was somewhat annoyed by Kevin’s characterization at first, because it was clear Kevin was supposed to “be comfortable with his sexuality, even if the rest of the world wasn’t,” and really, it was such a stereotype. I became slightly less annoyed as the running joke was framed around vampires/blood, contagion and hypochondriacs, but then returned to annoyed because characterization never went beyond. Much like those skits in Monty Python–funny for the first three minutes, less funny at minute eight and a half. 

Plot generally moved steadily, and largely avoided wandering off into too many side stories. However, it was sadly compromised by a multi-voiced narrative that included just about everyone in the cast, including murder victims and supernatural killers. The transitions were rough, especially at first, but I was accustomed to it by the end. While narrative switching does serve to help round out characters and perhaps add a little plot tension, it really needed to stick to fewer characters to be more effective and maintain congruity.

Writing style feels like Douglas Adams on a poetic day. Dialogue is frequently in monologue bursts sans punctuation, in keeping with the style of characters that are uncomfortable taking center of attention, even in their own lives.  Then there are moments where poetic-like style intrudes, a voice focused on cadence rather than structure. It is especially used during magical or emotionally tense scenes, perhaps using form to capture nebulous feeling. I didn’t particularly mind it, and think it’s a useful technique to describe something as vague as magic or a feeling of disquiet. However, I mention it because it has the potential to drive both lovers of punctuation and concrete details batty. A sample passage, with spacing identical to the text:

A single iron staircase let up to a fire escape whose door was drifting shut behind the man, and there was something here, something…


…which she had no better name for.

She stood on the cracked concrete of the yard, and looked up at broken windows, at walls with crumbling mortar, where even the graffiti artists couldn’t be bothered to paint. She saw the yellow lichen flaking off the bricks behind the stair, smelt raw sewage from a neglected gutter, saw purple buddleias sprouting from a crack in the wall.


A thing missing here.

She put her hand on the stair rail and felt rust, sense the metal warp and hum beneath her step, thought she heard voices a long way off, and bit her lip and climbed.”

Then there’s the other side of Griffin’s writing style, the phrasing that reminds me of Douglas Adams’ lovely narrator voice with its matter-of-fact sarcasm/oddball metaphors. It must be the fabled British sense of humor, which I first encountered in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which, come to think of it, is likely why he’s my reference point. At any rate, my first page marker went in on page 25 when I read:
She threw herself upwards in a single motion, not so much an act of strength against gravity, as a moment of pure intimidation in which the forces of nature considered their adversary and decided it wasn’t worth kicking up a fuss.”

followed by a member summing up the strangeness in the city:

“‘So… you’re experiencing hollowness, emptiness, doubt, despair and a great sense of wrongness,’ she clarified, ‘but you can’t exactly say what it is. Have you tried acupuncture?’

But then there were moments of fine descriptive, atmospheric writing:
There were shadows here trying to be seen, but afraid to go that final step and be perceived.

Then quickly back to the silly:
“‘Nice? Nice? Magic ain’t supposed to be nice. You want nice, go look after baby penguins at the zoo!’
As career advice went, Sharon had heard worse.

But silly often works. A confrontation with a Big Bad by phone using the verbage of self-help along with a modified ‘pass-the-message’ game had me laughing out loud. Pacing was strong enough that I didn’t want to put the book down, despite the variety of voices chopping the story up into small chapters. Overall, it was a fun read, with re-read potential just to appreciate the wordplay and absurdities. I’ll definitely check out the next in the series.

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