Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

July 27, 2017

Meet Greta Helsing, fast-talking doctor to the undead. Keeping the supernatural community not-alive and well in London has been her family’s specialty for generations.

Greta Helsing inherited the family’s highly specialized, and highly peculiar, medical practice. In her consulting rooms, Dr. Helsing treats the undead for a host of ills – vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s been groomed for since childhood.

Until a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human and undead Londoners alike. As terror takes hold of the city, Greta must use her unusual skills to stop the cult if she hopes to save her practice, and her life.

Like most members of the caring profession, Dr Greta Helsing will do whatever she can to help those who require her assistance. The only difference between Greta and a regular run-of-the-mill physician is that most of those who visit her surgery are already dead (or undead if we are being technically accurate). Due to the supernatural nature of her patients, Greta’s practice, though based in Harley Street, is only just managing to survive. It turns out replacing bones in mummies, or treating a supernatural being with bronchitis is not the most profitable line of work. On top of all that, Greta has discovered a far bigger problem. Who are the sinister cadre of monks that want Greta and her patients destroyed? And more to the point, why?

Greta is a great character. She steadfastly refuses to give in to the powers transpiring against her. Her work is her life and she often goes without to accommodate her charges. There is real steel running through her veins and she has a stubbornness that ensures people tend to end up coming round to her way of thinking. It must be something to do with people who work in medicine. My mum was a ward sister for many years and she displayed the same attitude. She would not take any nonsense from anyone no matter how important they thought they were.

The good news for Greta is she that she is not alone. She has friends she can call upon to assist in her hour of need. Edmund Ruthven is a charismatic vampire who has evolved along with London better than most. He genuinely enjoys the trappings of modern undead living. Next there is Fastitocalon, an extremely old family friend, almost a surrogate father, who also happens to have supernatural abilities. Defining exactly what sort of being Fastitocalon is however remains open to a certain amount of debate. Finally, there is August Cranswell, a researcher/museum curator who is aware of the existence of the supernatural. Cranswell’s family have a connection to Ruthven going back generations. August is always happy to help if it means he will get to learn something new. The trio are firmly in Greta’s corner and it falls upon them all to protect one another, protect undead London, and solve the ever-deepening mystery.

When it comes to London there is no better genre than urban fantasy for making the city feel like a character in its own right. Books like The City’s Son, Neverwhere and Banished do a great job of this. Strange Practice joins this list as another perfect example. All the various types of undead that Greta meets make the city seem that little bit more mysterious, a little more vibrant, dare I say it? A little bit more alive. There are great swathes of London that are unknown to most normal people. The maze of tunnels and sewers that crisscross under the metropolis are an ideal breeding ground for evil. All that potential darkness and unfamiliarity ramps up the tension and creates a delightfully sinister tone. I also love the thought that secret societies, supernatural forces and undead creatures exist just out of view from the main population. Though Strange Practice is set in the present, Vivian Shaw also manages to capture that real sense of history that surrounds our nation’s capital. The undead have been part of London since the city’s inception and their existence has grown up along with it.

I’ll admit, I was a little surprised. I didn’t expect a novel about a doctor to be quite so gripping. The work Greta does however falls very much into the fringe sciences category and the people; alive, dead or undead, that inhabit that world are quite the eclectic bunch. Greta’s work is a step beyond the realms of normal medicine and that makes for the basis of an enticing narrative.

I have a rule that I try to stick to when it comes to reading. If I’m not into a book by page one hundred, I don’t read any further. I think it is fair to give a plot some time to unfold before making any sort of decision. Occasionally though I can pick up a book, start to read and know within a couple of pages that I am going to be absolutely hooked. Strange Practice is a splendid case in point. Vampires, demons, ghouls, supernatural cults and all manner of inexplicable jiggery-pokery. What’s not to love? The characterisation is bang on and I was left wanting to learn more about each one of the creatures, human or otherwise, that Greta meets. Their assorted histories are bound to be fascinating. The story is unique enough to remain consistently intriguing and contains plenty of unexpected twists and turns. I can only hope Vivian Shaw writes many more Greta Helsing novels. There is tons of potential for this to become a series that will just run and run. I can tell you now that if she does write more I’ll be first in line to read them.

I’ve gone for a classical selection with my musical recommendation for Strange Practice. Back in 2015 there was a game released called The Order 1886. The soundtrack, by Jason Graves, has a tone that manages to be both sinister and exciting at the same time. Much like Strange Practice itself. There is some anthemic chanting that sounds like monks to me. Honestly, just listen to it while you read, this album is the perfect accompaniment for Greta and her adventures.

Strange Practice is published by Orbit and is available now.

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