Review: Uncanny Vows by Laura Anne Gilman

Review: Uncanny Vows by Laura Anne GilmanUncanny Vows (Huntsmen, #2) by Laura Anne Gilman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Huntsmen #2
Pages: 384
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Following the events of the high-stakes and propulsive Uncanny Times, Rosemary and Aaron Harker, along with their supernatural hound Botheration, have been given a new assignment to investigate…but the Harkers believe it’s a set-up, and there’s something far more ancient and deadly instead.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker have been effectively, unofficially sidelined. There is no way to be certain, but they suspect their superiors know that their report on Brunson was less than complete, that they omitted certain truths. Are they being punished or tested? Neither Aaron nor Rosemary know for certain. It may be simply that they are being given a breather or that no significant hunts have been called in their region. But neither of them believes that.

So, when they are sent to a town just outside of Boston with orders to investigate suspicious activity carefully, the Harkers suspect that it is a test. Particularly since the hunt involves a member of the benefactors, wealthy individuals who donate money to the Huntsmen in exchange for certain special privileges and protections.

If they screw this up…at best, they’ll be out of favor, reduced to a life of minor hunts and “clean up” for other Huntsmen. At worst, they will be removed from the ranks, their stipend gone—and Botheration, their Hound, taken from them.

They can’t afford to screw this up.

But what seems like a simple enough hunt—find the uncanny that attacked a man in his office and sent him into a sleep-like state—soon becomes far more complicated as more seemingly unrelated attacks occur. The Harkers must race to find what is shadowing them, before the uncanny strikes again, and sleep turns into murder—and the Huntsmen decide that they have been compromised beyond repair.

But their quarry may not be the only uncanny in town. Botheration and Aaron both sense something else, something shadowing them. Something old, dangerous…and fey.

My Review:

If the idea that the Harker family is somehow involved with the things that go bump in the night feels familiar but you can’t quite remember why, it’s because it IS familiar. Jonathan Harker got himself mixed up with a famous vampire in a little place called Transylvania a mere couple of decades before we first met Aaron and Rosemary Harker in the first book in the Huntsmen series, Uncanny Times.

Because the times they live in are very ‘uncanny’ indeed, the Huntsmen their family has always been a part of have a very long tradition and there are vampires in Europe. Not in America, not so far, at least not yet. But still, the idea that an uncle or a cousin got themselves mixed up in that other uncanny business is not all that far-fetched once the reader gets themselves fully immersed in the Harkers’ not-quite-urban-fantasy, not-exactly-alternate-history version of 1913 New England where the ‘automotive’ has just started sharing the streets with horse-drawn carriages, the Great War seems to have already begun in Europe, and the ‘uncanny’ things that populated Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow have put down long, deep roots in the local landscape.

And occasionally slip into nearby houses and offices to practice their mischief. Or commit murder.

That’s what sends the Harkers, brother and sister, on a covert mission to Boston to investigate what might be an attack by an uncanny. The organization that monitors and dispatches the Huntsmen have asked/ordered/voluntold the Harkers that one of the organization’s financial backers has called in some favors, that the man wants a discreet investigation of his brother-in-law’s mysterious illness/fainting fit/possible attack, in order to placate his wife and get back to his business.

It’s a far from ideal situation, and both the Harkers know it. The Harkers feel like the organization no longer trusts them after the events in Uncanny Times, and that they’re being sent on this mission without information and with their hands tied behind their backs because its a test that someone wants them to fail.

And they could be right on all counts. But that doesn’t change the mission, only make it a whole lot more difficult to resolve – with that desired discretion or without.

Not that discretion is even possible while there’s something uncanny watching and waiting for them to make a mistake – the kind that either gets the all killed, or the kind that exposes all their secrets to a world that is absolutely not ready. Or both. The way that the Harkers’ luck tends to run – bet on both.

Escape Rating B+: So far, at least, the Huntsmen series still feels like it’s part of the ‘Weird West’ tradition. It obviously isn’t, not with the ‘automotives’ [sic] on the streets and the Great War looming on the horizon, but it still feels that way, like it would fit right into The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny collection coming out in a couple of weeks.

(Although, come to think of it, the author DOES have a series that is explicitly set in the Weird West, titled The Devil’s West and beginning with Silver on the Road. I think I just saw it shooting up the virtually towering TBR pile, chased by one of the Harkers’ specially-prepared bullets.)

With the first book in the series, Uncanny Times, I liked the idea of the story and the series more than the story I actually got. Although I loved the Harker’s hellhound Botheration and still do. He stole every scene he was in and does in this book as well. (Don’t worry, Botheration is a Very Good Boy and is just as fine at the end of this adventure as he was at the beginning – which is very.)

His humans, however, are a bit closer to the end of their tether than either of them realizes when this case gets wrapped up. Although it does, in spite of the roadblocks put in their way by both the organization and the favor-calling client and benefactor.

One of the things that makes this series work is that Rosemary and Aaron Harker are both of their time and place AND a bit outside it at the same time, making them excellent investigators of both the human and the uncanny aspects of the case. Even as they push at the boundaries more than a bit. Which is both the cause of their ‘outsiderness’ and its result.

That’s part of why I enjoyed this story more than the first, because we get a much fuller picture of the Harkers, their skills and their capabilities, we know more about what makes them who they are, and we see more of why the organization doesn’t exactly trust them but can’t afford to assign them to the equivalent of working in Siberia without proof of something. Not that some folks aren’t looking for that something, and haven’t been for most of Aaron’s life.

At the same time, the heavy lifting of setting up the world and the series has already been done in that first book, so this one is able to sink its teeth into the case from the very first page – and that they drive off in Aaron’s rented ‘automotive” gets things going that much faster, while Rosemary’s dislike of the speed, the dust, and Aaron’s relative inexperience driving the thing adds a bit of lightness to what is otherwise a rather dark story of obsession and possession.

I came back to this series for Botheration, but I stayed because the setting is getting more and more interesting as it goes, and the case was filled with plenty of twists and turns and still-fresh-from-the-water red herrings. All the while, Rosemary and Aaron’s different but equally jaundiced perceptions of their world grounded the story in characters that I could not merely empathize with but actually share the frustrations of along the way.

So if you like tales of the Weird West – even though this isn’t quite – or historical urban fantasy – which this most definitely is – or just like exploring a world that isn’t quite ours but is just enough like ours to really, seriously get into, take an ‘automotive’ trip to early 20th century Boston with the Harkers and their very good, and very large, boy, Botheration. It’s a wild ride from beginning to end – and not just because of Aaron’s driving!

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