Underground: Incredible sense of place

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Kat Richardson UndergroundUnderground by Kat Richardson

Underground is the third in Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series, which features Harper Blaine as a Seattle private investigator who can see the “Grey” — the borderland between reality and magic, life and death, past and present. Harper gained this ability when she died for two minutes in an attack by the subject of an investigation.

Underground starts so slowly that I feared Kat Richardson had lost her way. It’s difficult to imagine that a hard-working private investigator with plenty of work would dive into a case with no client, especially one that, like this one, poses considerable risk of physical harm to an already physically overstressed body. Yet not once in the course of the book does Harper even mention that a paying client or two is paying second fiddle to her quest to find a monster in the depths of Seattle in order to save the lives of the homeless. It’s a noble quest, no question, but wouldn’t one have a second thought or two about leaving this particular investigation to the authorities?

Despite the practical problems, though, the book really gets going about halfway through. Richardson has clearly done her homework about underground Seattle, Seattle history, and Native American mythology, and her research is evident on every page. I love a book that can teach me something about a monster with the unlikely (and oddly funny) name of Sisiutl, and how this Native American myth ties in with other traditions around the world. And I enjoyed learning about how Seattle had to be raised — the whole darn city, apparently — in order to avoid the effects of the tides. The sidewalks remained below for a considerable time, so that pedestrians had climb ladders to get to where they needed to be — ladders that often led to deadly falls if one slipped in the rain. Richardson isn’t the type of writer who feels the need to give you every fact she picks up in the course of her research; she uses her information with a good deal of art, only once resorting to a straightforward infodump by having her protagonist join a tour of underground Seattle.

Harper’s romantic entanglements get more interesting here, too. I appreciated the reality of her relationship with Will, painful as it was for Harper, and got a kick out of everything new we learn about Quinton, her security expert. Richardson clearly knows how to put together a series: there are a few subtle set-ups for the next book in the course of these relationships, as well as in Harper’s ongoing friendship with Ben and Mara Danziger and their pet ghost, Albert. It’s a good cast of characters, and one that should provide Richardson with plenty of fodder for additional entries in her series.

What especially makes this novel sing in its second half is its incredible sense of place. This seems to be true of some of the best urban fantasy out there these days: Seanan McGuire writes about San Francisco and environs in her October Daye series, while M.L.N. Hanover wrote convincingly of post-Katrina New Orleans in Darker Angels. Richardson tops them both with her detailed writing about Seattle’s past and present and its many different sorts of inhabitants. I’m already eager to read the next in the series, Vanished, which will take Harper Blaine to England, a place redolent with history.

~Terry Weyna

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUnderground by Kat RichardsonUnderground is the third book in Kat Richardson’s GREYWALKER series. Harper Blaine, a private investigator in Seattle, Washington, was clinically dead for about two minutes, long enough to trigger her paranormal ability to see into “the Grey.” Harper can see ghosts and other supernatural creatures like vampires and zombies. She can also see strands of ethereal energy and snippets of the past where they remain trapped, like a tape loop, attached to a location or a person.

Harper has a lot on her plate at the beginning of Underground. She is recovering from an injury she received in Poltergeist, struggling to resolve her relationship with boyfriend Will, who can’t understand why Harper doesn’t have a more normal life, and now her reclusive friend Quinton asks for her help finding a killer who leaves arms and legs lying around. The killer is feeding off homeless people near Pioneer Square. When Harper sees the first body she knows immediately that the attacker is not a human. It’s something from the Grey.

Richardson weaves Seattle history, Native American folklore, the harsh reality of living on the streets and the paranoia of big government into this book. Harper’s investigation catches the attention of the NSA and she must deal with a driven intelligence agent, as well as suspicious homeless people who don’t trust strangers. While Richardson nods to the theory — mostly a rationalization — that some people enjoy living on the streets, she accurately portrays the risks, fears and day-to-day issues of people living without shelter. She makes this more harrowing by describing a colder-than-average Seattle winter, making us feel the weather in the tips of our fingers as Harper interviews people who sleep in doorways and train tunnels in an attempt to survive the night.

GREYWALKER is an excellent series and Underground is a solid entry. Quite apart from the strangeness of Harper’s supernatural world, her abilities and the interesting characters, Richardson delights me with her bits of description of the Puget Sound area. In this book, Pioneer Square and its famous underground city get a lot of attention, but I also laughed out loud to see the Tulalip Casino highlighted. If you’ve ever driven north on I-5 past Seattle, you know the one she means — you can’t miss it. Harper’s visit to a native elder in a strange house on the reservation is powerful and eerie. Richardson has mastered this material. In Poltergeist, I had trouble understanding how Harper could use the Grey to sift through eras of time. In this book, that was much clearer. A couple of plot points are a bit too obvious. Balancing that out is an artful bit of misdirection about one recurring character, who is revealed to be something more interesting than what I — and Harper — had first assumed.

Richardson is a good writer who does research and puts just enough of it into the book to deepen the story. If you like interesting magical systems, realistic characters and books with a powerful sense of place, you should start reading this series now.

~Marion Deeds

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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  1. I really need to try this series. I was sent Labyrinth a while back and I could tell it was interesting, but I was totally lost and sent it to Sarah Webb. I should start at book one and give it another shot.

    The Seattle history aspect sounds great. I’ve been on one of those underground tours and they’re quite fun!

  2. Labyrinth is probably the worst one to start with. Just because it’s the one least able to stand on it’s own. It is really a sequel to Vanshed. Start at the beginning and enjoy getting to know the characters.

  3. It’s my opinion that this series really does need to be read in order, much more so than many urban fantasy series. The whole set-up comes in the first book, and each book builds steadily on the theme. But (with the exception of the second book), they get better and better as Richardson goes on.

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