Book eight for Seanan McGuire's 'InCryptid' series is the third with Antimony Price in the lead, my favourite Price before this book and still my favourite after it. Her brother Alex gets the focus in the bonus novella, 'The Measure of a Monster', proving again why he's a solid but boring lead, but that's really there to bring his cuckoo cousin, Sarah Zellaby, enough back to rights mentally for her to take the main role in 'Imaginary Numbers', the ninth book, which is due next year.
Annie spent much of 'Magic for Nothing' at the Spenser and Smith Family Carnival as a double agent. The bad guys of the series, the monster-hunting Covenant of St. George, think she's working for them but she's really a plant to find out their plans, given that they're surely going to be launching an attack on the entire Price family and the cryptid population of the United States soon, following Annie's sister Verity's statement on national TV that, 'This is my continent. Stay out.' After burning the carnival down (to save its people, you understand), she spends 'Tricks for Free' hiding in plain sight at Lowryland, a Disney World clone in Florida, at which she finds a whole new mystery to solve and associated bad guys to defeat. The Covenant are on an odd pause.
And, rather surprisingly, the Covenant are still on an odd pause here. Annie is on the run again and she's found her way to Maine, along with her boyfriend, Sam, who spends a good deal of the time as a monkey; Fern, who, being a sylph, can change her own gravity and float near the ceiling if she wants; and Cylia, who's a jink, which means that she's able to manipulate luck, even if it always balances out in the end. They tweak that luck to find a house to rent, so they can take a breather from the road and figure out what to do next. Frankly, even with the luck tweak, to suggest that the next steps are rather convenient is a real understatement.
I may have blinked and missed it, but I believe that, while we spend almost the entire novel in New Gravesend, ME, we hardly see the place and only two locals are deemed important enough to actually get dialogue; one is James Smith, their young neighbour, and the other is his dad, the local police chief. What are the odds then that James is a) a budding sorcerer, perhaps the first one that Annie's actually met in the wild, b) an employee at the only store Annie visits in town, and c) someone who would dearly like to kill the Crossroads, at which Annie traded a future favour for the lives of her friends and at which Sally, James's friend, vanished entirely? Yeah, pretty frickin' steep odds, if you ask me, even if we make allowances for luck.
In other words, this entire book hinges on one humungous plot convenience. McGuire even owns up to it in the text, pointing out to us that "Magic-users are rare. Sorcerers, being wholly hereditary, recessive, and hunted by assholes like the Covenant of St. George for centuries, are even rarer."
That everything connects so simply has ramifications, but the author is very good indeed at writing prose that flows. It's always amazing to me, when I get to the end of her books, to realise how little time unfolds. She immerses us in her worlds so absolutely that we think we spend months or years there, only to realise at the end that it was just a weekend or a Tuesday afternoon. 'That Ain't Witchcraft' unfolds over just a few days, with one thing leading to another and escalating as it does so until we find ourselves wrapped around a big metaphorical boulder hurtling towards something pretty damn serious. It's getting to the point where McGuire could write a whole book about her characters sitting down to breakfast and still make it riveting, so we need to keep an eye open to make sure there's actual plot unfolding.
Really, what we have here is Annie and friends stopping the car, discovering a crucial ally, figuring out a plan and executing it with unlikely help. That's about it. Everything else is window dressing, admittedly thoroughly enjoyable window dressing but window dressing nonetheless. The one wrinkle to complicate things is that the first trip into town puts Annie face to face with Leonard Cunningham, the heir to the top spot in the Covenant of St. George. He's magically tracked her, so she can't get away from him, and he's quick with a crossbow, but he only shoots her by accident because he wants nothing more than to take her back to England with him as a loyal member of the fold.
I liked 'That Ain't Witchcraft' but McGuire's prose is getting so smooth and apparently effortless that I could read a shopping list she wrote and still be engrossed. The mission at hand is interesting and, while everything leading up to it is outrageously convenient, the plan is simple but neatly obscured. We spend time with Aunts Mary and Rose, the latter of which has her own series now, and we find a strong direction forward for Annie within the framework of the series. While she's passing the baton to Sarah for the next book, I'm sure we'll get a couple of worthy chapters in it with her first.
I've enjoyed these three books with Antimony Price, even if the first was easily the most substantial, and I can grudgingly admit that she's played her part in the series for now. There's nobody I'd more like to struggle through ancient tomes with on esoteric research and there's nobody I'd prefer to have by my side when searching for a hidden room in a big house. She's tough, she's nerdy and she's loyal. She's far more grounded than sister Verity and far more engaging than brother Alex and that makes her a better lead. Cousin Sarah is a wildcard and I'll be fascinated to see how McGuire puts her to use.
The bonus novella, 'The Measure of a Monster' features Alex, with Sarah's help, searching for stolen gorgon children and, while it only lasts sixty pages, it mirrors the main novel in that it's free from red herrings and plot complexity, focusing instead on character, one end goal and series progression. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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