Summertime reading catch-up: Vivian Shaw’s ‘Strange Practice’

Strange Practice is Vivian Shaw’s debut novel. I was excited about the concept of the novel from the beginning, and then I found out she has an undergrad degree in Art History and an MFA in creative writing. Oh hello, academic twin, it’s lovely to meet you.

Dr. Greta Helsing is the latest in her family’s line of doctors who treat the supernatural. And yes, she is related to that van Helsing. (The family dropped the ‘van’ in the 1930s and started helping rather than hunting.)

I picked up Shaw’s book because the finale of Penny Dreadful (that, yes, I finished over a year ago) left a giant hole in my heart yet to be filled. Strange Practice is more a supernatural modern urban mystery than the blood and guts and violence of the TV show, but what drew me to both was the new, unique iteration of familiar, supernatural character types.

Dr. Helsing goes about her daily life—treating the undead, the ghouls, the mummies and vampires at a clinic—when she gets a house call for a vampire attacked by a murderous cult. She is thrown into the middle of the mystery as more supernatural assassination attempts throw her side of London into a state of terror.

I was delightfully surprised to come upon queer characters, as they weren’t advertised in the marketing of the book. (Surprise queer characters! Insert grabby hands.) In an AMA Reddit thread, Shaw commented that the diverse spectrum of identities will be further expanded in the coming books of the trilogy. (As if I didn’t already want to get my hands on the sequel.)

It took me a while to keep the main characters straight (hah), but that speaks more to my distracted reading habits than Shaw’s writing. The characters interact frequently, and I would have liked to have gotten to know them more on their own as well. The dry humor, the punchy, pithy lines of dialogue—“nothing more than a bit of engineering with ideas above its station”—had me cackling aloud in my apartment. As the novel progressed, the characters gained depth and color, adding to the tension and mystery of the story.

Shaw inserts lovely nerdy references—Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Monty Python and many more I’m sure I missed—like little Easter eggs: some obvious, others subtle.

The ending had a slant-deus ex machina, which seemed slightly out of sorts with the organization of the rest of the novel. That said, I found myself embracing it and I hope that we will get to see more of it expanded in the forthcoming books.

There’s all sorts of magic in Strange Practice—the literal kind on the page, the subtle kind that brings the characters to life—and the writing itself as it weaves between the pages. If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or have enjoyed Edward Gorey’s drawings, or love finding new yet familiar supernatural characters, Vivian Shaw’s magical debut is a must-read before classes start again.


Disclosure: The author received a copy of Strange Practice from Orbit Publishing in exchange for an honest review.