Vigil by Angela Slatter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book had the potential to end up as just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy, with a kickass heroine of mixed human and magical descent in the noir PI role, getting beaten up by monsters and eventually making the city safe for the innocent again. Fortunately, the author is skilled enough to lift this classic formula to a new level, not just executing it flawlessly but adding a layer of depth that the thousands of UF clones out there seldom achieve.
Primarily, I think, she achieves this by making the characters' relationships rich, varied, powerful, and fundamental to the plot. The protagonist's mother was missing from her life, and her father got arrested for the (literal) monster he was when she was still very young; she was raised by her grandparents. So far, nothing we haven't seen before. But then we get the solo mother next door and her daughter, who's a kind of niece to the protagonist, and whose actual aunt is toxic and crazy, and then we meet people who have dysfunctional families, who have happy families, who are alienated from their families, who have no families but have people they love who aren't genetic relatives... Family, in all its many forms and manifestations, ties the whole story together and drives the plot, along with a theme of caring for and protecting the young, and what happens when you don't.
I did feel that the protagonist's own romantic relationship was underdeveloped, as was her love interest; he ended up, for me, being a genderflipped damsel in distress (though the protagonist, to the author's credit, is not just an example of the Man With Boobs trope; far from it). I noticed in the afterword that he shares a name with the author's husband, so perhaps she has fallen into the trap of introducing someone she knows into her book and, therefore, not making them sufficiently real to the reader, who doesn't know them and can't fill in all the details for themselves.
That's a minor flaw, though, more than made up for by the book's many virtues. For example, it has a strong sense of place, as urban fantasy should. It's set in Brisbane, where I lived for most of a year (albeit more than 25 years ago), so I have some sense of the city; the centrality of the river, the history of flooding, the different suburbs and their character all come through strongly. Not only that, but the tough, no-nonsense protagonist feels somehow Australian to me. I've met a number of Australian women like her, and she comes across as fully authentic and real.
All of this is conveyed through excellent prose, too. I received an advance copy via Netgalley for review, which often means wading through multiple typos and a swamp of homonym errors that haven't yet been through final copy edit, but I spotted very few issues indeed. And the author is capable of a sentence like this: "the horrent twists of a most abhorrent shade of bright orange". I had to look up "horrent" (which means "like hair standing on end"), so this is an example of an author using a word I don't know (rare), using an obscure word correctly (also rare, sadly) and doing so with a touch of clever wordplay.
Overall, this is a fine start to a new urban fantasy series, which I'll be following with great interest. Highly recommended.
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