Despite the fact that fantasy novels on the whole tend to take themselves a little too seriously, walking the fine line between fantasy, horror and comedy is a tricky one. This may be because world building itself is a serious business and using humour poorly can undermine the effect and take the reader out of the world. Striking the balance between horror and humour can be even harder. But this level of difficulty just serves to highlight when it is done well. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, both successfully took on the challenge. More than that, their authors avoided huge exposition dumps early on and took their time to completely flesh out their worlds. Which brings us to CK McDonnell’s new novel, and clearly the start of something substantially bigger, The Stranger Times.
The Stranger Times is a small newspaper in Manchester operating out of an old church and reporting on the bizarre, unexplained and occult. “Its stated task was to report the weird and wonderful from around the world ‘and beyond’.” Running stories like ‘Nessie is the father of my child’ and ‘Virgin Mary Halts Terrorist Attack’. The reader’s introduction to this byway of the information superhighway is Hannah Willis, recently divorced and out of cash with no qualifications and needing a job, so much so that she will even respond to this ad:
‘Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply.’
The paper itself is staffed by what turns out to be a fairly dysfunctional found family of odd souls from the editor Banecroft down. But Hannah finds a glimmer of acceptance even as she has to deal with the weird folk who seek to have their stories investigated by the paper. But then things get real. Readers already know that magic exists in this world and that an evil magic user is around with a mission that involves kidnap and the judicious use of a werewolf. When his plans impact on the staff at The Stranger Times they start investigating and in doing so open themselves up to learning about the real magical folk and monsters who walk among them.
CK McDonnell is a not very secret pen name for prolific Irish crime author Caimh (pronounced ‘Qweeve’, hence the CK) McDonnell. So it is not surprising that the driving force behind this genre mash is a criminal investigation with paranormal undertones. Of course, the crime genre has a long history of using the press or investigative journalists as a means of investigation. McDonnell doles out clues sparingly, allowing the reader to build up a picture of this world before a fairly lengthy exposition that sets up the finale. This exposition builds, much like other modern celtic-based fantasy, on an ancient conflict between humans and fae. But even that explanation leaves plenty of aspects of the world only briefly touched on or referenced (including the final scene) to be explored in future books (and other media – The Stranger Times also has a website and a podcast).
The Stranger Times is the perfect way to see in 2021. It is a well mixed brew of wild, irreverent, bizarre, tense, compassionate and funny. And the perfect introduction to a new urban fantasy milieu which looks like it may be around for a while.