Welcome to you, friend of the fantastical creatures lurking in your midst. Today I have an indie offering for fans of urban fantasy and murder mystery (which, I am sure, is most of you). The Secret Dead by S.W. Fairbrother is an enticing addition to the urban fantasy genre in the vein (I thought) of Ben Aaronovitch’s series featuring DC Peter Grant.
The Secret Dead follows Vivia Brisk, a hag – or death witch – who is employed by the Lipscombe Trust, an agency that assists non-human entities to rub along happily in a human society that has already implemented strict laws to deal with the ever-present threat of a zombifiying virus. When she’s not dealing with trolls requiring rent assistance or shape-shifters being unfairly discriminated against in the workplace, Viv looks after her sister Sigrid, whose soul is trapped in the Underworld, even as her body requires round-the-clock care. When office philanderer and all-round sleaze Malcolm Brannick unexpectedly zombifies at home and is spirited away by his winged son, Viv is drawn into a decades-old mystery that quickly turns dangerously sinister. As the macabre discoveries mount up in her investigation, Viv is called upon to enter the Underworld (in effect, die) to gain answers for the police. With questions piling up around her, Viv has to use all her contacts in non-human society to unravel this mystery before it becomes personal – and she gets stuck in the Underworld for good.
Read it if:
*you suspect that if a government agency ever examined your family situation in any kind of detail, you would have a lot of explaining to do…particularly about the body of your dead mother being reverentially concealed in the attic by your immortal step-father
* you believe that zombies were people too…and therefore should be treated with dignity and respect, even as they attempt to gnaw at your flesh
* you would be secretly happy if the office sleaze-bag suddenly turned into a zombie
* you believe that police work is always made better by a few trips into the Underworld
I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the mystery that Fairbrother has created here. The story seems to unfold in layers, as Viv discovers new information about people she thought she knew well. Then there’s Viv’s personal struggles with earning enough money to keep herself, her (immortal) step-father and her disabled sister in housing and food. And underlying this is a very tightly written world that believably incorporates humans, a whole range of non-humans and part-humans, as well as undead humans.
I found the zombie theme a fresh new touch to the more traditional urban fantasy elements and I was surprised that it actually worked really well and gave the story an interesting twist. My favourite thing about the zombie threat in this particular book is that it was given a historical basis – the zombifying virus is one that has been present in the population for generations and therefore societies have developed to manage outbreaks and those that are carriers of it. Because Fairbrother has integrated the zompocalypse theme in a historical way, it doesn’t have that over-used vibe that can come across in other novels.
If you enjoy the sort of crime investigation/magicality mash-up in Ben Aaronovitch’s novels, this might be a good choice for you. The mystery element is pretty complex, involving lots of different characters and backstories, and the world building is solid and believable. I’m not sure whether Fairbrother plans to turn this into a series, but it was pleasantly satisfying to see an ending that wrapped up the events of the book, but left the characters with some options. There’s also plenty of lighter moments sprinkled amongst the death and unsightliness, so really, this book should appeal to a wide group of readers.
Until next time,
*I received a digital copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*