Monday, February 20, 2023

Microreview: Backpacking Through Bedlam, by Seanan McGuire

The preceding novel in Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series, Spelunking Through Hell, paid off a lot of small references to Alice Price-Healy throughout the previous ten books. Having read every one of McGuire’s numerous short stories dealing with the Healy family in Buckley I’ve lived with this world and these characters longer than the novel-only readers. Spelunking Through Hell pays off *everything*, but it many ways it doesn’t feel quite as much like an Incyptid novel because, well, Alice is hopping between dimensions to find Thomas. Calculated Risks was similar in that regard as the first book to actively take place not in our world. This will all make more sense if you read in the series in order, which I heartily encourage.

The first third of Backpacking Through Bedlam suffers (which is not quite the right word) that same issue. Alice found Thomas in Spelunking Through Hell. She gets him home in this book. Once she does, I felt my tension as a reader dissolve (much as that of Alice and Thomas does as well). We’re back in Buckley, back in familiar environs, and there is just enough time for Alice to info-dump some knowledge onto another character before McGuire circles back on everything else that has been going on while Alice has been hopping between dimensions and Sarah and Antimony were destroying an existential parasite and then finding their way back to this dimension.

Remember way back in Book 5 (Chaos Choreography) when Verity exposed her family on national television and threatened the Covenant of Saint George and then in the next book (Magic for Nothing) her younger sister Antimony went undercover in a Covenant training school? Well - all of that (*waves hands at story*) is coming home to roost.

In a number of ways, a book review is not and perhaps should not be a discussion of what the story is about or, gasp, “the plot”. That idea works, I think, for just about everything except the twelfth novel in a long running genre series, almost regardless of genre.

Now, in certain series you know exactly what you are going to get - in some cases beat by beat, and other than acknowledging that the author delivers the expected experience that’s really all that needs to said.

Seanan McGuire has been playing around with that a bit in her Incryptid series by shifting protagonists every two to three books, which has allowed a recalibration of a character’s personal stakes in a story following a previous book. Verity is not Alex who is not Antimony who is sure as heck not Sarah - they each have their own perspectives, despite being siblings (Sarah not withstanding) - so the common experience has been the particular world and how the Price family interacts with the supernatural around them and, ultimately, in conflict with The Covenant of Saint George, the misguidedly evil organization of self-righteous murder.

There is a certain amount of comfort in reading the Incryptid series. The expectation is not so much that we can color in the numbers of the plot or the revelation ourselves, but the tone and the acceptance and belonging that is felt within a very small and tight knit tribe fighting against increasingly large and impossible odds.

That’s where Backing Through Bedlam takes its place - with a world-shattering conclusion to the last Antimony novel, a trip through inhuman dimensions with Sarah Zellaby, and Alice Price bringing her almost mythological husband home after fifty years - Backpacking Through Bedlam brings a whole lot of story together and begins to restitch what seemed like multiple books running on tracks that started parallel but continued to diverge and diverge back into one larger fight. It’s impressive.

Spoilers but not spoilers for a long running series that has not advertised an “explosive conclusion” but Backing Through Bedlam continues to set up that one larger fight. I wouldn’t expect readers who have followed along this deep into a series to anticipate a true ending - though there have certainly been multiple stops along the way where we could reasonably have been satisfied if that’s where McGuire chose to bring this to a close - but the Alice story has been too important to Seanan McGuire to not get to this point and beyond. For those readers who have been delighted with the Incryptid series for years, you will continue to be delighted by Backpacking Through Bedlam. Readers who may have felt that Spelunking Through Hell was a bit of a diversion will be satisfied once Alice and company return to Earth (that’s a sentence I wrote).

Backpacking Through Bedlam is an absolute delight.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him