This is the second urban fantasy book I’ve read in a row – the other one being the first Dresden Files book – and now I know that urban fantasy actually doesn’t mean the same thing as paranormal romance I think this is a genre I could really get into. Cos there ain’t no romance in UNDER ORDSHAW folks. This is a gritty, grimy tale of subterranean monsters, foul-mouthed rifle-strapped fairies and the people tasked to hunt them down in the name of national security. This review is part of the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for the book, so make sure to check them out for the rest of the tour schedule as well as a bunch of other great reviews.
I’ll start by saying I sat down with this book, blinked a couple times, had a few sips of tea and “What the fuck I’m halfway through already?”. I churned through that first half like butter cos it just has a bunch of stuff I’m an absolute sucker for. Shady government agencies covering shit up, an outcast main character living on the fringes of society and (something I didn’t realise I loved until I read this book) those foul-mouthed rifle-strapped fairies!
So our main protagonist is Pax, an outcast who makes a living playing poker. I was invested in Pax straight away, not least because I actually played poker professionally for a few years and it’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored in fantasy and science fiction, but also because of how quickly she’s thrust into the crazy and intriguing mystery that sets the book up. Yeah, there’s no messing about in the intro, Pax is in the wrong place at the wrong time, has a bunch of money stolen by a strange kid called Rufaizu and almost immediately attracts the attention of one Cana Casario, an agent of the covertly-named Ministry of Environmental Energy. Casario becomes an immediate pain in Pax’s arse after she discovers a bunch of mysterious items in the wreck of a house belonging to the strange guy who stole her cash. This was the strongest part of the book for me and the part that really got me to buy in. It’s mildly spoilery to go into the exact things Pax finds in Rufaizu’s flat, but they’re weird, they’re obviously important, they make no sense whatsoever on the surface and it’s probably the biggest mistake of Pax’s life that she decides to keep them as collateral for the money he stole from her.
There’s always discussion in writing circles about how to get readers to identify with and root for your main character and I thought Williams did a great job of this by having the reader discover these weird mysteries alongside Pax, almost having us stand alongside her as we both puzzle over what hell is going on. This part of the book also does double-duty as seamless world-building, showing the reader this world isn’t the world we know, that there’s some weird shit going on, even if we don’t yet know exactly what.
One character in particular deserves a special mention and that’s Letty. Letty is a fairy and she is awesome. Drinks like a sailor, swears like a motherfucker and packs a whole lotta punch for a two inch tall Layer Fae. Some of the absolute best dialogue in Under Ordshaw comes out of Letty’s foul mouth and I love the relationship that develops between her and Pax. There’s an edge and a friction to their relationship that’s downright dangerous a lot of the time – and that never really goes away – but the friendshiiip(???), if not something bordering on mutual respect, that develops between them is great and one of my favourite things about this book.
There were parts of Under Ordshaw that I didn’t vibe with quite as much. I found aspects of the plot a bit confusing at times, mainly regarding some characters’ motivations for doing certain things. This may have partly been down to me just not keeping up, cos there are a lot of shifting alliances at different point of the book – people working together at one point are working against each other later on and vice versa. I did have to sit and think through why people were doing what they were doing sometimes, which detracted a little bit from the story and there’s still some things I don’t really get. For instance, I still don’t get why Rufaizu stole Pax’s money at all in the first chapter. I mean, it set Pax up to get involved in all this sure, but like, was it just a convenient plot device or did he actually have a reason to do it? Maybe I missed something but it’s still not clear to me.
(EDIT: Thinking about this, I feel like it may not actually have been Rufaizu who stole the money at all, but Casario, who did so as a way of deliberately pulling Pax into his world. I’m possibly just dumb as a bag of rocks, but I didn’t pick up on this at the time. Have you read the book? If so please let me know your take on this).
One major drawback for me was that honestly, I just didn’t care about the Barton family =/. Darren Barton is a monster hunter, but one who does it for the thrills rather than through official channels. He gave it up years before the book begins to save his marriage but the desire to be out there doing something and the frustration of being cooped up takes its toll on him and his marriage. Darren (aka Citizen) Barton gets drawn back into the shady underground monster-hunting biz and his wife (Holly) and daughter (Grace) are unwittingly drawn back in with him. Clearly this spells danger for the Bartons and much of the second part of the book centres around their plight. Unfortunately I thought Darren was a bit of a wooden character, Holly is one-dimensional and quite irritating and similarly there’s just not much to Grace either. I found this surprising given that Williams does such a great job with almost every character except the Bartons. Pax, Letty, Casario, they’re all great characters. Casario is a creepy, unlikable, borderline narcissistic piece of shit sure, but still well-written and fleshed out. Not so any of the Barton family. Which is unfortunate, given that so much of the tension towards the end centres around the danger they faced and I dunno man, I just didn’t really care what happened to them. Maybe I’m just a bad person.
Overall I enjoyed Under Ordshaw. At it’s best it’s awesome, just top-notch devourable urban fantasy with great character work, world-building and dialogue. It’s main drawback for me was the strange blip on the radar when it came to the Barton family. I just find it so odd that I loved everyone else except them, but it is what it is. Def pick this book up though, there’s a lot to enjoy and well worth the read.
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