Urban Fantasy is one of the hybrid genres I enjoy, although it’s difficult to find books or series offering a different take from the much-used theme of the private investigator (either with or without special powers) dealing with an underworld peopled by fae and/or supernatural creatures: Strange Practice, the first novel in the Dr. Greta Helsing series, offers such a breath of fresh air, depicting a very human main character working as a physician for these weird beings, who live in our world while managing to keep hidden in plain sight from the public.
Latest in a line of healers descended from the famous Dr. Van Helsing out of the Dracula myth, Greta is very dedicated to her London clinic whose patients include banshees and ghouls, mummies and vampires, and any other kind of imaginable (or unimaginable) otherworldly creature. Greta’s busy but interesting routine is upset when she’s summoned by one of her closest friends, the vampire Ruthven, who is sheltering another vampire he literally found on his doorstep seeking help after a brutal assault.
The attack on Varney, the victim, seems closely related to a series of murders that’s worrying the authorities and creating sensationalist ripples in the public for the bizarre ritual connected to them: each of the victims was found with a cheap plastic rosary in their mouths, and it took no time for the tabloids to dub the series of killings with the name of Rosary Murders. Varney’s assailants wore what looked like monk robes, muttered outlandish chants and hit him with a cross-shaped dagger covered with an unknown poison apparently able to hinder a vampire’s quick healing powers.
The mystery deepens when Greta herself is attacked in her car by a scary individual, also dressed as a monk and uttering incoherent Bible quotes, with a face scarred by fire and strangely-glowing blue eyes. Moving to Ruthven’s house for safety, Dr. Helsing is soon joined by the other members of what will soon become a sort of investigative team set on finding the dangerous “monks” and removing the threat to the supernatural community: Fastitocalon is a mysterious being who was Greta’s father’s friend and acts a sort of uncle to the doctor, while she tries to make him take better care of himself – the true nature of Fastitocalon (Fass, for short, which is a blessing considering how stumble-worthy that name is….) will be revealed in the course of the story, and it’s a very, very intriguing one, indeed. And finally there’s the only other human of the group, young Cranswell from the British Museum: he’s aware of the existence of these extraordinary beings and delights in the possibility of delving into their lore – an enthusiastic, if at times naïve, person who offers a needed counterpoint to the weirdness of the… differently human characters.
Where the overall story is interesting and at times gripping, as it develops across the city of London and through the mazes of its underground, it often takes second place to the characters and their interactions: the narrative style itself is a quaint one, relying very much on an old-fashioned expressive mode that at first seems to place the novel in the Victorian era, and only reveals its modern background at the mention of cars, wi-fi connections and so forth. After a while I became convinced that the unusual choices of phrase were due to the fact that most of the supernaturals are very ancient beings, and therefore still tied to an older way of expression: the clearest example of this dichotomy is Ruthven, a man – pardon, a vampire – who enjoys the comforts of modern living, including a state-of-the-art expresso machine, but still loves to surround himself with the vestiges of the past.
Bizarrely enough, Greta does not feel like the strongest character in this novel: she is of course admirable in her dedication to her peculiar patients, and one of her best moments happens when she is asked why she cares so much about “monsters” and she replies that to her they are people – no more, no less. Yet to me she appears much less substantial than the strange and scary creatures surrounding her, who literally stole the scene, from the mummy whose bones are falling apart and needs a few replacement pieces fashioned from a 3D printer, to the ghouls who gather in close-knit family clans, including a baby ghoul who remains cute even as we learn that he’s being fed sewer rats.
The best, however, remain Ruthven and Fastitocalon, and both of them quickly became my favorite characters and managed to overshadow Greta thanks to their peculiarities and the way they both related to the doctor, each in his own way: Fass is confidant and protector, the person who somehow filled the void left by Greta’s father’s death; Ruthven is the go-to-friend, unfailing in his support and generosity and a very suave gentleman to boot. That on the surface, of course, because they also enjoy very intriguing talents: Fass can all but disappear from notice, masking other people’s presence as well – as is the case when he helps Cranswell replace some important books from the Museum after he purloined them for research into the monkish sect; Ruthven, as a vampire, can thrall people to do his bidding, and he avoids looking menacing thanks to his laid-back attitude toward his nature, something I will leave to his own words:
The easiest thing is to think of me as a large well-dressed mosquito, only with more developed social graces and without the disease-vector aspect.
He didn’t even own a coffin, let alone sleep in one; there simply wasn’t room to roll over, even in the newer, wider models, and anyway the mattresses were a complete joke and played merry hell with one’s back.
This is indeed one of the peculiarities of Strange Practice: the distinctive sense of humor that might not be for everyone: in my case it worked very well, due to its light-handed nature, offering some needed respite in the most tense moments. Respite that also comes in those quiet passages where the group of characters takes a moment to discuss the situation over cups of tea or glasses of something stronger: these more intimate interludes help to better understand what makes these individual tick, and in the end they proved to be some of my favorite sequences.
Strange Practice is a very promising first book in this new-to-me series, whose unusual take on the genre’s themes might turn it into one of my favorite reads. Hopefully I will not wait too long before getting to the other two volumes published so far…