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Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire

Twice in a row now I’ve found myself reading a Seanan McGuire book while my wife has surgery. This time it was Discount Armageddon [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. Here’s the official synopsis:

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night… The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity-and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…

This book is McGuire combining her fascination with weird and wacky biology with her never-resting imagination to produce an urban fantasy that isn’t too serious, but is a great deal of fun. There’s plenty of good banter, lots of action, and a long list of interesting creatures to meet and talk to and/or beat to a pulp.

I had started reading this a while back, and it hadn’t sucked me in. I’m not sure if that was the book or my life getting in the way. But this time, as soon as we reached rumors of the dragon, I was hooked.

The romantic subplot was pretty true-to-form. Sexy sworn enemy is sexy, protagonist goes back and forth between attraction and wanting to put a bullet in SSE, SSE slowly comes around, and ends up more or less on the side of the angels. Except not, because in McGuire’s world, angels are probably some sort of dinosaur/bird hybrid that evolved to feed on the sound waves generated by hymnal music. That said, it was a fun subplot, and they do have some good chemistry going.

What really makes the book work though are the cryptids, the various species McGuire fits into the urban setting, from Sarah the shy/geeky/telepathic cuckoo to the dragon princesses to the gorgon to the Aeslin mice. Oh God, the mice. I won’t even try to explain them, except to say they’re one of those delightfully fun ideas I wish I’d come up with. While the sheer number of cryptids living undetected in the city strained my belief a bit, in a lighter book like this, I think it works.

Keep in mind, “light” doesn’t mean “mindless” or “thoughtless.” While the Covenant are pretty straightforward bad guys, the Price family brings a more interesting perspective as cryptobiologists, studying the biological role of cryptids and how they fit into the larger ecology. (Want to know what caused the Black Plague? Hint: It has something to do with the loss of unicorns.) Traditional monsters aren’t treated as monsters; nor are they simply misunderstood uglies with hearts of gold. They’re true to their nature. Like any other species, they can be dangerous, but that doesn’t make them evil. It’s an examination you don’t run into that often.

Which leads to a point I’ve seen made in some of the negative reviews for the book. In the first chapter, Verity chases down a ghoul who has murdered a number of girls in the city. But instead of killing it, she lets it off with a warning, with the understanding that if it happens again, she’ll personally end him. Which means she essentially let a murderer go free, and some readers have a problem with that.

Me, I’m torn. I can’t imagine the ghoul was under the mistaken impression that killing and eating random girls was okay, so it’s not like this was a cultural misunderstanding. On the other hand, if it was deliberate–and knowing McGuire, I’d lay odds that it was–it shows that Verity is in some ways just as bound to the rules and teachings of her family as the Covenant is to theirs. She lets the ghoul go because that’s what the Price family does, in part I suspect to distinguish themselves from the Covenant. It didn’t ruin the book or anything, but it was a bit troubling, and I wonder if that decision will come back in future books.

Overall, a lot of fun. If you like McGuire’s work, this one’s worth checking out. If you haven’t tried her stuff, this might be a good place to start.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 28th, 2012 02:44 pm (UTC)
:s/Black Plague/cholera epidemic of 1830?

(Which if you think about the vectors makes a lot of sense...)

...and, well, if you look at the unicorn example, her decision is at least consistent. Unicorns killed people too. In that case, there's a clear connection between a small number of people being killed, and a much larger number being protected. In the ghoul case... warning off the ghoul once before killing it seems consistent with the general family plan, if it's kind of a Hayek-esque non-interventionist thing. Maybe ghouls are really important too, and killing humans by itself isn't the worst thing ever. Or so I read it.

But yeah, kind of weird.

Edited at 2012-11-28 03:35 pm (UTC)
Nov. 28th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
I think the Price-Healy ethic is that genocide of a species is, in general, a dangerous thing (see: the unicorn example), and unicorns could be more troubling than ghouls because they might not be capable of being reasoned with. So you have the same problem of any dangerous animal: it serves an important purpose to the ecosystem but also will harm the unwary, which means you have to be clever and active about keeping an eye on things.

(The ghoul didn't bother me much, because of Verity's lack of resources -- she could kick the snot out of him and threaten him, or maim/kill him, but not something like... 'have him trucked off to stand trial' because that would open about a million cans of worms at once. Add in that Verity's ability to be seen as a member of the cryptid community and not a dangerous outsider depends on her ability to be seen as above reproach, so by killing one criminal, she might cut herself off from whatever good she can do in New York if the cryptid population doesn't believe her when she carts in the evidence of 'he was eating people'.

But I think a lot of that was not stated in the text (certainly not in the opening chapter); Verity later talks about how tentative her family's acceptance is among cryptids and that people still hold grudges for things that her grandfather did before he married her grandmother. Or what her great-great grandparents did before they came to America. And that part of the reason she's allowed to be in NYC is to build ties with the community.)
Nov. 29th, 2012 01:28 am (UTC)
I definitely think there was a lot more going on in that scene than was actually written on the pages. (Seanan has a comment below about what she was going for there as well.)

Even with dangerous animals, if you get one that starts killing people, it's not uncommon to put that animal down.

I trust Seanan as an author to not do this sort of thing without thinking it through. But while it was a deliberate choice, I also get why it didn't work for some people.
Nov. 28th, 2012 02:54 pm (UTC)
I read it on train and bus during autumn and enjoyed it very much.
Nov. 28th, 2012 03:43 pm (UTC)
I stopped at the ghoul warning. You don't tell me it killed sixteen young people, then act sassy when you let it go. It sounds like the author tried to get deeper into the mythos later, but I never got there.
Nov. 28th, 2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
The ghoul thing was where I stopped reading the first time. (Mind, I went back and finished the book, and loved it.) Because...mm.


Because it's easy to accept non-sentient predators as necessary to the environment, especially if they can be contained or redirected in some way. Wildlife preserves + tigers, for example. But it's a lot harder to accept sentient predators, and it's a lot harder to accept a reaction to them that doesn't try to contain them.

Now, the Price family clearly doesn't have the means to contain anyone. What they have available is Kill or Don't Kill, with a side order of Threaten To Kill. And given the Covenant's approach, it makes sense that they'd err on the side of Don't Kill whenever possible. There was no option for stopping the ghoul other than Kill.

And frankly, it's harder to accept as a choice--and I mean this as a reader--because the ghoul is doing the stereotypical Murder Pretty Young Women thing that so many serial killers do. It's the default shock value murder target of choice, and to treat it flippantly makes it seem...well, cheap. Like these aren't real people that we're supposed to care about, they're just Generic Female Corpses to show that the universe is dark and creepy. And I get enough of that in cop shows. And it makes it all the more frustrating when later one we're supposed to really care about someone else doing the Murder Pretty Young Women thing, and it's this whole big investigation deal where someone Must Be Stopped, but the first time it was just--teehee! Ghouls! They're like that!

I dunno. I got past it finally by saying "The Prices are being deliberately portrayed as having a creepy, inhuman ethical stance, which I can still enjoy reading about in the same way I can enjoy reading about other alien species that have inhuman ethics." And the rest of the book was such a delight! I couldn't get enough of it. So I don't want to imply that I didn't like the whole thing, when I really did. But when I'd heard that it was going to be fluffy compared to the author's other books, it was a distinct shock to have it give me a protagonist with a "pff, murder a few humans, who cares about girls?" approach. I can certainly read dark books with morally grey protagonists, but it was the complete opposite of what reviews had led me to expect.
Nov. 28th, 2012 06:47 pm (UTC)
The Prices are being deliberately portrayed as having a creepy, inhuman ethical stance, which I can still enjoy reading about in the same way I can enjoy reading about other alien species that have inhuman ethics.

This is, in fact, 100% the point I was aiming for, and you may have a cookie. :)
Nov. 28th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
Yay! Accurate reading cookie!

It's also one of those things that made a lot more sense once I'd read the whole book; and I try very hard not to ding books for not being what I expected based on what I heard secondhand from other readers. ("Very light and fluffy, not dark at all!") Because that's often quite different from what the author meant.
Nov. 29th, 2012 01:29 am (UTC)
Hey, do I get a cookie too? ::Pouts::
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 29th, 2012 03:36 am (UTC)
...you know, I'm pretty happy with how the book handles it. The way you put it makes it sound so incredibly victim-blaming and "She was asking for it, wearing something like that" that it makes me much more uncomfortable than the book itself did.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 29th, 2012 04:03 am (UTC)
I get where Verity is coming from on this. It's a fictional universe, with its own rules.

I am uncomfortable because you equated "Pretty girls going out into the night with strangers die horribly" with "Pets let to run wild around coyotes get eaten by coyotes," as if these were two equivalent things in real life. But they very much are not.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 29th, 2012 04:24 am (UTC)
I think it's rational to believe that humans should--in the moral sense, like "People should not be assholes on the internet"--be able to live their lives without being preyed on by other humans. It's a different issue in Verity's universe, because you have sentient beings that are not human preying on humans, and that raises complex questions about what's Moral and Natural--which are not necessarily the same thing.

On our planet, we only really have one known sentient species. ("Should humans prey on dolphins?" is sort of a different discussion.) Some species spend a lot of time preying on their own species; some don't. Either way, the whole point of being sentient is that we're not constrained by instinct and accident; we get to make choices.

So I don't think the whole predator/prey thing is relevant. I mean, you don't see wolves preying on other wolves; whether or not they're apex predators in the area is beside the point, for that. And I do think it's fair to say "People should not prey on other people," and that it has very little to do with different species eating each other.
Nov. 30th, 2012 12:51 am (UTC)
Hijack away - this is worth discussing.
Nov. 29th, 2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
looking for trouble
That's a very easy trope to fall into.

Books use it, movies use it, even newspapers cast their news that way. Unfortunately, lawyers and judges and cops all tip over this trope in real life, which makes it night a trope.

It's not right, and I don't agree with it, but it's easy.
Nov. 28th, 2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
I read this a while back and really enjoyed it. The mice...well, the mice were priceless. (You should excuse the pun.)

I think there is a second one out now, right?
Nov. 28th, 2012 11:05 pm (UTC)
Not quite yet. Looks like it will be released in March.
Nov. 29th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC)
It's a measure of how tiring today was that it took me all day to catch the pun.
Nov. 29th, 2012 03:16 am (UTC)
Maybe it just wasn't a very good pun :-)
Nov. 29th, 2012 08:29 pm (UTC)
I loved the mice, and most of the other cryptids.

I did not like Verity at all. She is way too brash and, yes, violent for my taste. Recreationally violent- like in her job as a waitress, she wears a really skimpy uniform (required), and enjoys beating up any man who offends her by saying.doing, or even looking leeringly. And this is not a principled stance, such as Slutwalk; this is because she's on a hair-trigger and likes violence. I got bored with her bragging about kicking ass in crippling high heels. I was rather shocked at the way she dismisses what sounds like a seriously abusive childhood, in which her sibs regularly tried to literally kill her, and the parents shrugged. She just seemed entirely programmed and blind to everything but her programming; even a shred of self-doubt occasionally would have made her feel human instead of something less so than many of the cryptids.
Nov. 30th, 2012 01:24 am (UTC)
I was suffering from withdrawal of Seanan-books, and for some reason thought Discount Armageddon was the first of a series that already had several books out, so I may have read through it like a house on fire ... and was only to discover that nope, it just came out and it's going to be a while before the next one.

I head-desked myself hard for that.

But it's okay, in a couple weeks I bet I'll be ready to do another more thorough read-through.

I do really love the idea, or at least the way Seanan tackles the idea, of mythical monsters/beings fitting into the ecology of Earth.

I see what you're saying about the reviews having issues with the Price family's somewhat less than "hero wouldn't let the bad guy walk away" ... I just keep on coming back to the whole theme of them trying to prove they're not as black and white as the Covenant, but still have a line of ethics that shouldn't be crossed. That's a tough road. And I expect it to be explored in other installments as we go.

Yes, I too was won over by the mice. Dammit.
Nov. 30th, 2012 04:14 am (UTC)
As I said on Ms. McGuire's page, watching the Disney Cinderella is a whole different experience after reading DA. Hail!
Nov. 30th, 2012 06:29 pm (UTC)
I definitely have to check this out!

I was reading about the inspirations behind the 2013 fantasy pin up calendar Patrick Rothfuss published and then I remembered you doing some sample fantasy cover art poses...and the idea of a male calendar with pin up poses was born. It would be hilarious (and could even be sexy if done well). Proceeds could go to charity just like the Rothfuss calendar's sales do. I would buy it. I thought you might be interested because of your previous posts on the subject of fantasy art.
Nov. 30th, 2012 11:36 pm (UTC)
I talked about doing a calendar at one point. At the time, I was thinking about having 12 different authors get in on it, but I couldn't get enough guys interested. I may revisit the idea one of these days when I have time...
Nov. 30th, 2012 11:42 pm (UTC)
Obviously your writing comes first.

It can be done a couple (or more) ways, one the authors themselves in silly poses or as in the recent calendar artist renderings of their male characters in typically feminine fantasy art poses. I favor the second though live men in those poses is pretty telling, as you illustrated so well.
Dec. 2nd, 2012 05:43 am (UTC)
On the other hand, if it was deliberate–and knowing McGuire, I’d lay odds that it was–it shows that Verity is in some ways just as bound to the rules and teachings of her family as the Covenant is to theirs.

That's very much the spirit in which I read it. The ghoul is a sentient being, and she doesn't get to be judge and executioner without giving it one chance.
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )


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