Book Review: Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Orbit (July 25, 3017)
Length: 353 pages
Admittedly, I was both excited and a little nervous about starting Strange Practice because of the mixed reviews, but as it turned out, I ended up really enjoying it. Swiftly paced at times, but also slow-moving at others, I can see how some readers would be put off by the story’s hodgepodge construction and eccentric writing style. Fortunately though, the book’s mix of humor, mystery, urban fantasy, and gothic horror ultimately struck all the right chords with me.
Our protagonist is Dr. Greta Helsing, a woman who hails from a long and illustrious line of monster experts, though her family has long dropped the “van” from their name. Following in the footsteps of her father, Greta is a doctor for the supernatural, specializing in providing care for London’s underground population of undead creatures, with patients ranging from vampires to mummies.
One day, Greta receives a request for help from her vampire friend Ruthven, who brings to her a special case. Another vampire has been gravely injured, and the patient is none other than Sir Francis Varney himself, from the famed Victorian era gothic horror tale. Varney had been stabbed by a mysterious cross-shaped blade, following an ambush in his home by an intruder with glowing blue eyes dressed in monk robes. At once, Greta can sense something wrong, and not least because the vampire is unable to heal from his wound.
After stabilizing her patient, Greta and her friends set their sights on figuring out the culprit behind the heinous attack. Meanwhile, there’s also a Jack the Ripper-like serial killer on the loose, targeting prostitutes and leaving plastic rosaries in their mouths as a calling card. Although the methodologies are different, our protagonist is concerned that the recent string of killings and the attack on Varney may be connected, and all too soon those fears are realized as Greta becomes a victim of blue-eyed monk herself.
I was completely charmed by this novel from the very first page. Greta is such a great character, with her selfless mission to carry on her father’s work in serving the paranormal community of London. Of course, her specialized clinic keeps her pretty busy, and as a result she keeps mostly to herself, both out of necessity (it’s hard explaining what she does for a living to any new people she meets) as well as from the amount of work she gets from trying to help anyone who comes to her for care. Fortunately, she has some very good friends around to support her, and we are lucky to meet several of them here as well, including Edmund Ruthven, the wealthy vampire whom she treats for chronic depression (and who has the distinction of being one of the first vampires in literature), as well as Fastitocalon, a demon who has been a friend of the Helsings for generations (known as “Fass” to his friends, he quickly became a personal favorite).
At first, Greta may seem aloof, but over time we start to see her compassionate personality come through, and even a little bit of her wry sense of humor. To be honest, I was surprised at how often the jokes in the dialogue made me chuckle. In some ways this reminds of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, another series I love because of its dry, subtle, very British humor. As other reviews have noted, the language in Strange Practice is quite formal, despite the novel being an urban fantasy story set in the present day. The result is both strange and alluring, frequently transporting my mind back to the Victorian era, and the Ripper storyline simply added to this effect, even though the text is peppered with references to modern day amenities and technology.
However, I can easily see how this anachronistic writing style can be a deterrent for some readers. The prose got clunky at times, causing disruptions to the flow of the story, and unfortunately Greta’s medical jargon did little to help. Pacing was also slightly uneven, but certainly I’ve seen worse in a lot of other debuts, not to mention whenever things slowed down, I found that it was often due to character or relationship development and world-building, so I didn’t mind too much.
Overall, I was pretty happy with my time with Strange Practice. It read like an urban fantasy but with a very cool twist, and I took to the story’s unique blend of genre elements instead of being turned off by them like I had feared. That said, this probably won’t be a book for everyone, but for me it was quick read and I found it hard to put down. I’m already looking forward to the next one.