Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

Grave Importance closes Greta's adventures but leaves its main character uncomfortably sidelined in a world of powerful supernatural men

Cover design by Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio

Grave Importance
closes out the Greta Helsing series of medically-focused urban fantasy, starring Greta, doctor to the various undead and supernatural residents of London and occasional haver of dramatic, mysterious adventures. Having read the previous two books in this series, I went on to this ending with a sense of mild uncertainty - I'd said on my reading of the previous book, after all, that the frustrations of a heavily male cast were starting to get to me despite the fun, and that I shouldn't read the next book without first investigating if it was to be all about the men around Greta. Well, I didn't do that, and any results from not following my own advice are therefore entirely my own fault.

This time, Greta is off to Oasis Natrun, an exclusive medical centre and spa that caters to mummies - no, not women parents of young or precociously posh children, the ancient Egyptian type with bandages and decaying limbs and internal organs that have been removed and placed in jars. Greta has been asked to step in for several months to Oasis Natrun, and jumps at the chance to drop her regular GP practice and check out the fancy technology that this fabulously wealthy clinic has on offer (incidentally, one thing that's entirely missing from this series? Discussion of how Greta's services are paid for, and the wider conversation around the right to healthcare and the role of public funds in ensuring it is on offer.) Of course, this being Greta, we know that the trip is unlikely to go quite as smoothly as intended, and sure enough it turns out there's some rather odd medical mysteries at the clinic, which appear to be supernatural in origin. Compounding her problems, Greta's longtime vampire buddy Ruthven has just had to return early from a holiday with his new boyfriend Grisaille (returning from the previous book) when a migraine turns into something significantly more sinister. It turns out, of course, that everything is linked and what follows is a journey through increasingly escalating circumstances - and when I say escalating, I mean "dig out the Led Zeppelin 'cause we're on an actual stairway to heaven and also everything is literally on fire now, no, imagine more fire than that, no, more than that, OK now double what you were thinking about, yes, that much fire".

Vivian Shaw has a ton of experience as a fanfiction writer, and some of that particular fanfic writing style and sensibility is in evidence here. The most obvious is the tone the novel takes to humanise characters, with multiple points of view, human and otherwise, all narrating in the same mildly anxious, matter-of-fact tone. Although it means that everyone's internal thoughts, from ancient vampires to human doctors to utterly alien angels from the next dimension over, start to sound the same, that's definitely supposed to be a feature rather than a bug in a series that's all about how monsters are actually just people. I have to say, not all of the quirks work perfectly for me all the time: it's specifically notable that Shaw makes copious use italics for emphasis, to the point where there's generally quite a lot of special words on every page. This makes for quite a distinctive style of writing that feels much closer to "online dialect" than most other books of this type, and while it does get distracting if you pay too much attention to it, it's also an interesting way of making a novel that's full of some pretty old characters and concepts feel very much like a contemporary read.

Where I struggled once again, however, was in how little Greta's medical expertise seems to actually come to bear on the plot, or allow her to be the centre of her own adventure rather than just a human along for the ride. Although Grave Importance starts off as a medical mystery, with some interesting scenes around Mummy medicine specifically, once its established that the illness plaguing Oasis Natrun isn't strictly medical in origin, Greta steps aside to let other characters solve the problem. Similarly, she ends up being helpless in the face of Ruthven's sickness, and has to call in a male colleague (a fun reference, at least) who immediately fixes the problem without any of her inputs. Greta therefore spends huge amounts of this novel worrying about all the things going wrong with the various areas of her life in which she feels responsibility - to the job she's taken on, to her patients, and to her friends - all while the narrative gives her absolutely no tools to actually engage with those issues. It only gets worse as the story moves into its endgame and Greta and indeed all the characters we've been mainly following in the plot to this point end up sidelined in the face of overwhelming events, with others taking the fore instead (and an ultimate resolution that depends just on the actions of two intriguing but very minor characters to that point). It all ends up feeling a bit futile - why is Greta's name on the front cover if she's not the character who is going to solve any but the most routine problems?

And, of course, I have nobody to blame but myself for this, but I said I wouldn't read Grave Importance unless I discovered it wasn't all about the men, and then I decided to go for it anyway, and of course this book was once again all about the men. Sure, Greta's female surgery staff are back, but their screentime and impact is minimal compared to all the dudes she spends her time fussing over: from the supporting cast who get the most agency, to the external expertise she brings in to solve her escalating problems, to the patients she spends more than a few seconds worrying over. There's also a woman who serves as a secondary villain and whose arc is... interesting... and a nurse at the Oasis Natrun who Greta likes. Even the political representation suffers: The management of hell, which in Grave Importance appears as a city state destination much like any other, which the characters go out of their way to note isn't that bad, actually? Of course they're all blokes - because changing the very concept of Hell into a kind of misunderstood slightly-warmer Singapore makes sense, but having Greta deal with powerful women in positions of leadership would clearly be a change too far for the mythology.

I appreciate that this may come across as me getting too nitpicky about a series that's ultimately designed as fluffy escapism - but for me? That lack of female representation, and the lack of agency for the main character, is the stuff that really matters, because it's what prevents the Greta Helsing trilogy from being genuinely enjoyable comfort reading for me. There's certainly just as much value in books full of positive, sometimes queer relationships between men, but creating one at the expense of any empowerment, action or even anything particularly interesting about the female main character who is supposedly at the heart of it all is a choice that feels, at the very least, kind of disingenuous, and while I ought to have known what I was getting myself given my reaction to the previous book, I find myself disappointed all over again by a series that seems to be doing something very different to what I hoped to get from it.

The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Unusual but fun writing style that takes some of the best conventions of fanfiction writing.

Penalties: -1 There's an ancient spotlight-stealing man wherever you look; -1 Honestly, I hate the spotlight-stealing men so much that I'm counting them as a second penalty...

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Shaw, Vivian. Grave Importance (Orbit, 2019)