“After inheriting a highly specialised, and highly peculiar, medical practice, Dr Helsing spends her days treating London’s 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 dreamed of since childhood.
But when a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human undead and alike, Greta must use all her unusual skills to keep her supernatural clients – and the rest of London – safe.”
I came across Strange Practice (book one of the Dr Greta Helsing series) by Vivian Shaw while browsing in Waterstones. The cover immediately grabbed my attention, and since I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting urban fantasy series, I picked up a copy there and then.
The book is written in third person and primarily follows Greta Helsing, doctor to the hidden supernatural community of London. We quickly meet a ragtag group of friends and allies (another human, a vampire, a vampyre, and a demon) and the point of view switches between them throughout.
Strange Practice is urban fantasy, but not as you know it. The setting is modern day London, though at times I began to doubt this. The novel is written somewhat like a Victorian drama; this comes across in the language used, the way characters speak and interact, and the general sensibilities of those characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and there is a charming quality to the writing, but it is jarring at times. There are a number of characters who are centuries old, so I think the antiquated speech and sensibilities do fit the bill in cases, but every character is written this way. Most times while reading, I’d settle in to the prose and tone of the story as a Victorian-era urban fantasy, and then the modern world would intrude with things like the internet or 3-D printing. I don’t for a second doubt that this was an intentional stylistic choice, but by the end I was wishing the book had come down firmly on one side or the other (though perhaps that would have sapped some of the originality from it).
Another aspect to the Victorian-style writing is that the characters felt remote. It was difficult to fully engage with Greta or her friends because they didn’t feel immediately relatable. I do think if the novel had been wholly Victorian-esq, then I would have found this easier to overcome – but the modern setting served to remind me as a reader that this is now and so the characters didn’t ring true. This was most apparent with Greta, our protagonist. Oddly, I think the way Greta was written made her seem more of a reactionary character than she truly was. Leading to the finale, Greta was agentic but perhaps not in the obvious sense – I won’t say much more, for fear of spoilers, but some readers may find this unsatisfying, others progressive.
This all sounds somewhat negative, but in fact I did enjoy the novel. The plot was engaging enough and the writing did charm me, plus the contrast in style and setting oddly drew me on. I was somewhat perplexed while reading it, but also intrigued. I can certainly imagine many readers either loving or hating this book because of that reason, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. Three stars. Strange Practice took me outside of my comfort zone; I wouldn’t necessarily rush to the forthcoming sequel, but I will check out the blurb and who knows, maybe I’ll be teased into reading Greta’s next adventure.