Stray Souls may in fact be the modern fantasy novel I have been waiting to read for twenty years.
Why? One simple reason. When vast supernatural evil threatens the city of London and all its supernatural inhabitants, and when freshly minted shaman Sharon Li gets drafted to Do Something about it, and when all of the various mentor-type figures who know what’s actually going on and are brought in to instruct her start speaking in cryptic, uninformative gobbledygook, she beats the holy hell out of them until they provide her with actual, useful information.
Oh, sure, there are other reasons to love the book, the first in the new Magicals Anonymous series that spins off from author Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor books. For one thing, there’s a marvelously evoked supernatural London that’s actually accessible to those of us reader types who didn’t actually grow up there, a place of mystery and wonder that nevertheless holds its internal logic and avoids dipping into the twee.
For another, there’s the cast of characters, magically endowed folk trying to make their way in the modern, multicultural world with just as much confusion and fumbling as the rest of us. The foodie troll who’s lost interest in hanging out under bridges because what really calls to her is the kitchen? The modern art-loving banshee who thoughtfully writes out her comments at the Magicals Anonymous encounter group meetings Sharon organizes, so as to avoid blasting the ears of all attending? The fussy necromancer, the OCD vampire whose way too into hygeine, and most of all, lost twenty-something Sharon slowing realizing her place in the world isn’t at a coffee shop at all? All of them feel real and vibrant and (mostly) uncontrived, the vampire’s overboard hysterics being the lone possible exception.
And then there’s the villain, or more accurately, the villain’s plan and henchmen. What Sharon and her motley tribe of critters goes up against is not some abstract magical threat, understandable only by dint of metaphysics and defeatable only with an otherwise useless Macguffin. Instead, what Sharon faces is a threat instantly recognizable to anyone who’s lived through the last decade, a genre-appropriate version of a very real issue that hits close to home. Unrestrained corporate greed, the abuse of power in the interests of the all-important Christmas bonus, the dehumanizing attitude of the self-proclaimed “Masters of the Universe” that reduces human lives to tick-marks on the balance sheet – imagine those boosted with real magic, and suddenly the threat Sharon faces becomes far more engrossing than any fantasy novel antagonist has any right to be.
The book isn’t perfect. Griffin doesn’t quite nail walking the line between wacky hijinks-style humor, as expressed by Sharon’s stream-of-consciousness monologues and the assorted vampire shenanigans, and the genuinely awe-inspiring bits that arise from the mythic cityscape. As a result, there are goofy sequences that run a bit too long to keep up their energy, and there are definitely a couple of characters for whom less would have been more. But these are minor concerns. The book neatly lines up the cliches of the subgenre and asks “what would a sensible human being do here?” to each one. The results are alternately heartwarming, awe-inspiring, and side-splitting. If you only visit one mythic London this year, make it this one.