Review: “See Me,” by Tanya Huff

The Ginger Waif apologizes for a long absence. There was stuff that happened. It either involved a brief sojourn on a space-whaling vessel or a layoff and an awkward move. Anyway. Today I’m delving into another short story (yay!) and a story that features my beloved Tony Foster of Smoke and Shadows fame. It’s a good day to review.

“See Me” is one of many stories to be found in Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives, edited by Justin Gustanis. It’s an anthology–and someday I will figure out how to review one of those–of occult detective stories. I have less time to spend with it than I’d like, as I’m speeding along while spending the night at a friend’s. Maybe I’ll get my hands on my own copy or a library’s and return to the whole. It seems to me an excellent project. I’m a sucker for Urban Fantasy. What can I say? And as the stories all feature characters who hail from established worlds, it’s a great way to find shiny new series. I wasn’t really familiar with any of the other authors, so I have expeditions to make…

Anyway. The story picks up well after the end of the aforementioned Smoke series. This makes avoiding spoilers a little difficult, if you haven’t already met that excellent cast, but I’ll try. The story features Tony and Lee most prominently, second assistant director (he apparently hasn’t had a promotion in a few years) and second lead, respectively. Most of the other greats from the series return, most notably Amy the spastic goth and Jack, Mountie and monster fighter. Interestingly, Henry is missing. No snotty-ass vampires here. Tony is the sort of character I really care about, and he always had such organic growth throughout the novels that I follow his career with interest, and I thought it was good for him not to be leaning on Henry. He’s accomplished a goal there and kept it accomplished. Good on him. And Henry, while pretty damn cool in the Blood series, got a little annoying as Smoke went on.

Rather as usual, “See Me” opens with the production crew at work. There’s a scream. Tony encounters a body (so, you know, Tuesday). A dead old guy and a panicked prostitute, Valerie, are discovered at the end of the alleyway. Lee decides to befriend her and Tony decides to be suspicious of her. Honestly, there’s not much to be surprised at until the end. I’d figured out the monster and modus operendi pretty early, though to be fair, the story’s not a whodunit. Tony got it right after I did. The conclusion, however, is a surprise, and a beautiful one.

I have previously mentioned a certain discomfort with the sexual politics in this series, and I was afraid this story would be equally awkward and uncomfortable. I was pleasantly surprised. From an inauspicious beginning, it found its way to treating everyone with gentleness and respect. The story doesn’t even wholly demonize sex work! Valerie’s unhappiness and Tony’s past are treated with tenderness that borders on condescension, especially paired with the Tony-centric narration in portions, but the appearance of one cheerfully confident hooker and Lee’s POV scenes belie that. It’s odd to harp on and praise the gentle consideration in a horror story, but I promise it doesn’t distract from the scary part and it’s refreshing, compared to earlier manifestations in this universe.

The writing took some interesting turns. The story isn’t nearly as funny as Smoke tends to be, dealing as it did in its limited space with some very heavy themes, but there are new aspects that make up for it. There’s a lot of Lee in the narration, and he’s always been a subtly interesting character. It’s cool to hear from him without the Tony filter. The pacing is tight–it’s only about twenty pages, and Huff has a bit of a sprawl habit, so well done. The visual language is especially rich in this little story, always a nice touch, and especially in this genre. You can get away with some pretty simple worldbuilding in urban fantasy, because it’s just the regular one, only with vampires, and visuals often get abandoned, but there was a sense of place in this story, particularly strong though Huff always makes you feel very grounded, whether in Vancouver or in a vaguely Middle Easter-inspired city improbably clustered around a very active volcano.

So all that stuff I said about how short stories don’t really work with my usual four-part grading system? I lied. Short stories are slippery, feral beasts, and sometimes they’ll sit down and let you define them and sometimes they run away and join the circus. And I mean a weird circus. Cirque du Soleil weird. “See Me” cheats a little by having its long-established mythos to draw from, but every other story in the book has a home elsewhere and there’s enough exposition to be getting by. The characters are, as always, strong, though they’re showing their emotional sides rather more than usual. I don’t object (relationship drama is digestible in a short story, and when it involves characters who are real and beloved and strong), but odd that we should see so much more vulnerability arguing over a kinda weird girl than battling for the fate of the world. The story is well-executed, if not the most unique idea ever crafted, and it’s wrapped up with a particularly pleasant twist. The writing is more lyrical than perhaps is Huff’s usual, and it works well for this oddly compelling slice of life. A lot fewer jokes, though. I do miss my pithy remarks. And the world is the same supernatural-infested Vancouver it’s been since Smoke and Mirrors, but the detail of the city and its people and scenery is particularly well done this time around.

If you haven’t read the Smoke series, do. Then read this. If you haven’t time to read the whole series (and really, it goes fast, faster than you want it to), just read “See Me.” And if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, and if you haven’t got a ha’penny, then the library’s free, so you’ll be fine.

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