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.