Review: Seanan McGuire, Midnight Blue-Light Special

It’s time for another review of a recent book from a prospective author’s perspective. Today’s subject is Midnight Blue-Light Special, which despite its title is not about shopping, but an “urban fantasy” (according to the publisher) written by Seanan McGuire, a writer hitherto unknown to me, despite having won a John W. Campbell Award for best new writer back in 2010.

Cover art: Aly Fell

Cover art: Aly Fell

Why did I pick up this book? Well, that’s lesson #1: have a good platform. Every book for prospective authors tells you to do this, and even suggests things you should do. But the point of the platform isn’t its construction. It’s bringing in your potential readers.

Let me explain how that worked for this book and me. I want to read new and interesting sci-fi/fantasy works. The local university was holding a sci-fi/fantasy convention, and the local independent bookstore was hosting a series of author signings for that con. I got the bookstore’s newsletter announcing this, which pointed to the list of authors participating. I ran a search on each author’s name, and went looking through their amazon.com pages, their websites, and their Wikipedia entries (if they had one) to find out who they are, what they’ve written, and how they position themselves as writers. Then I went to the bookstore and leafed through whatever from these authors was on the shelf.

I hadn’t heard of McGuire, but she had several books to her credit, and had won some awards. When I looked through the book blurb for Midnight Blue-Light Special on amazon.com, the word that caught my eye was cryptozoologist: a scientist who studies creatures not yet recognized by most scientists, like the Loch Ness monster or the sasquatch. That’s an interest of mine. When I went to the bookstore, the book carried some endorsements that impressed me, and the back cover blurb promised humor. I’d been talking about the difficulty of writing humor lately, so, with everything else, I decided to pick up the book.

McGuire’s platform did four things that won her my patronage: she got in my face, her platform told me enough about her books that I found them interesting, she had endorsements that implied a level of quality, and the book was available, right there in the store. She made a sale and acquired a first-time reader. That’s what a platform should help you do.

Lesson #2: a series is as strong as the reader’s cumulative experience up to the last book they read. This works for and against an author. If someone liked the earlier books, they’ll keep reading, overlooking a weak book or two. That’s one reason publishers and authors love series. But it also means the first-time reader will probably judge the entire series based on whichever book they read first. And that won’t necessarily be the first book in the series.

To me, if you publish something as a book, with its own distinct title, it is a story that should be an enjoyable reading experience in itself. If I can’t read your book with understanding and enjoyment unless I’ve read some previous book of yours, then don’t give the new book a distinctive title. Call it volume two of the previous work. Or at least stick a preface in that explains everything I missed by not reading the first book.

On the other hand, there’s no point in writing later books in a series unless they do refer back to the earlier volumes. Indeed, I personally delight in catching references to earlier stories when I’m reading a series. Those help provide depth to the stories, and serve as a reward to loyal readers.

The difficulty is to balance the references to earlier stories so they illuminate the newest story in the series, without either bogging it down or mystifying the first-time reader. Which brings us to Midnight Blue-Light Special. It is the second volume in McGuire’s InCryptid Series, and I hadn’t read the first. As a first-time reader starting with that second volume, I’d say McGuire did well. There are numerous references to a previous adventure, which I gather was the subject of the earlier book, and several major elements, such as the boyfriend, are carried over into the second book. Yet McGuire offers quick explanations, most of the time, that don’t disrupt the story’s pace and bring the new reader up to speed. And the plot can stand alone for a satisfying read. I did become confused about the protagonist’s complicated family, but some of the characters in the story are equally confused about it, so I let it ride. It was a minor irritation.

Lesson #3: How you attracted your readers will determine what they get out of your story. I picked up the book for cryptozoology and humor. Humor enlivens much of the plot, which is about a cryptozoologist trying to save supernatural creatures from extermination. Sounds grim? Yeah, but McGuire loves sticking her monsters into prosaic situations, such as having to hold down a job, to show their absurd side. The tension of the plot and the comedy of the creatures play off each other for a good read.

However, the part of this book that really grabbed me were the four chapter (16-19) from the perspective of one of the supernatural cryptids, a human-looking one named Sarah. It is hard to write a decent alien, one that can engage our sympathies and yet still be really different from humans. Sarah is one of those rare creatures. She looks human, she thinks like a human, some of the time, but her biology is so different that her sensory and higher-level perceptual capabilities are significantly different. And at a deeper level her psychology is different, too. Sarah’s trying to manage living like a human in a world of humans, but she isn’t human and in some ways can never be human. Remind you of any good sci-fi/fantasy aliens you know? It should. I went along with McGuire’s human protagonist, Verity Price, for a fun ride, but it was Sarah who interested me the most as a person.

So there you have it. McGuire with her platform lured me in with a promise of humor and cryptozoology. And that, naturally, is what I ended liking the most about the book: the humor running through it, and the one cryptid who gets to speak with her own voice.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Reading fiction, Reviews, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Review: Seanan McGuire, Midnight Blue-Light Special

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Standard disclaimer applies: I don’t know the author, apart from spending a minute having her sign my copy, and have no connection to the publisher, illustrator, et al.

    I try not to read others’ reviews before writing mine. I’ve since read several reviews of this book. Lesson #3 applies in spades to the character Sarah: reviews are sharply divided over whether she adds to the book or detracts from it. I hold to my original judgment.

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