Vivia is a Hag, born with the ability to die and pass into the underworld (not very magical) and come back (most certainly magical). It has also gifted her with an ancient and, thankfully, absent mother and a sadly harmed sister who she now has to look after
She works for a charity her step father dubs “citizens advice for the supernatural” which is accurate – everyone needs help navigating the legal and bureaucratic mazes of Britain, the hated supernaturals are definitely no exception.
Then one of her colleagues becomes a zombie – and goes on the run. A zombie apocalypse is terrifying enough to lock down the city and Vivia steps up to find her co-worker and his son, going places where the police (and past antipathy with the supernatural) cannot; and uncovering secrets that have been buried a long time.
The first thing I have to praise about this book is the world – an alternate magical London with all kinds of monsters and magic lurking around the corners. But it’s not just a magical London, it’s not just a magical London with overt supernatural; but a London with a MUNDANE supernatural.
This is a London where our protagonist, a Hag, has to take the tube. This is a London where shapeshifters sue for housing discrimination and trolls have to fill out unemployment forms. This is a supernatural London with a department in charge of cleaning up magical leakages. This is a London that deals with zombie outbreaks with police and special forces and lockdowns (which people ignore, of course) and where the zombie virus can be caught as an STD.
It’s a world where the supernatural is part of the mundane, in part if is gritty simply because of the mundanity of it. Not because it’s super grim dark – but because it’s every bit as grim as our reality is – and that’s “grim” not “grimdark”. It isn’t hyper awful with film noir-esque monologues about how terrible everyone is – it’s grim in the sense that the every day can be grim. The grind of daily life, of working a thankless job for an underfunded charity protecting the rights of a much despised group. It’s not easy, there are difficult decisions to be made – and it’s all so very mundane.
And when you can make werehamsters, people with wings and a weresnake orphanage mundane, that takes some extremely good writing.
The magical world is also, as can be guessed, unusual. Shapeshifters come in all kinds of shapes and sizes for all kinds of creatures. We have weresnakes where their snake form is based on the cultural consciousness of the area (so in England largely cobras and giant pythons because that is what we picture when we think “snake”). We have a variety of ghosts in their various afterlives – it’s a really fascinating underworld with some truly excellent concepts – like the ghost who eats constantly in their afterlife because they were starved to death and they’re desperately trying to deal with the trauma of that death. It’s just one element of interesting complexity this world often hints towards – like the ethical conflict over what to do with the zombies; without human flesh they degenerate and rot, a terrible fate. But their bite spreads zombiedom – hence zombie apocalypse and the utter terror . At one time zombies were burned to death which sounds horrific but is also seen as preferable to the rotting alternative – leading to the fascinating conflict of crematoria staff being arrested for burning zombies – when the zombies themselves have sought them out. There’s a lot of conflict around zombies because they are an apocalyptic force – but they’re also victims with lots of difficult moments like family members being subject to arrest for hiding the fact a relative is a zombie.