Tricks for Free, (2018) Seanan McGuire’s latest in the INCRYPTID series, left me the least satisfied of the series books to date. I’ll get into what disappointed me later in the review. As is always the case with the series, there are plenty of things to enjoy and I’d like to talk about those first.
Tricks for Free is the second book featuring the “baby” of the Price family, Antimony, who usually goes by Annie. This synopsis may contain spoilers for Magic for Nothing, the first Antimony Price book.
Previously, Annie went undercover in England to infiltrate the Convenant, a ruthless association of monster hunters who want to wipe out all the cryptid life forms. For several hundred years, Annie’s ancestors were part of the Covenant, until they got more enlightened, fled to the new world and went undercover. Now, stranded in Florida, Annie is undercover herself, using the alias Melanie West. She can’t contact her family or even close friends for fear of showing up on the Covenant’s radar; she’s left her boyfriend behind and she is even, for the first time in her life, bereft of the magical Aeslin mice.
After a coincidence of such breathtaking proportions McGuire needed to write a prologue to set it up, Annie/Melanie gets a job at Lowryland, the second most popular theme park in Florida. The park’s safety record has been extraordinary but now suddenly people are starting to die, usually in bizarre accidents. Without tipping her hand or revealing her identity, Annie must figure out what is happening and how to stop it. While she is doing this, she needs to learn to control her own burgeoning pyromantic powers without setting herself or her friends on fire.
What I liked the most about this was the introduction, once again, of some new-to-me cryptid species like the Pliny gorgon (who’s studying to be a doctor) and the jinks, who can perceive luck as if it is a material substance — and manipulate it. Tricks for Free expands on the existing idea of the crossroads ghosts with highway witches and trainspotters: magical practitioners who use the power of the open road and the power of motion to fuel their magic. The other thing I liked was the descriptions of the underground tunnels that ribbon Lowryland, used for transporting equipment, goods and staff, so that the illusion of the park is never broken. Obviously, with a highway witch in the mix, those tunnels are going to play a big part in the story, and so are the roller coasters that power the trainspotter.
Despite a convincing statement of menace and real stakes — innocent park visitors are dying — the story rarely felt tense or exciting. Even during pivotal action scenes there was a feeling of distance, a tendency on Annie’s part to veer away and deliver an expository lecture about magic and so on. And I found the first thirty or forty pages, in which Annie shares for the boot-camp (or military-school) environment of park employment, ground along like a car that can’t get out of first gear. And the story relies on not one but two coincidences. I can swallow the second one, barely, because we do have characters who manipulate luck, but the first one stuck in my craw.
Emotionally, Annie has a lot on her plate, but mostly she broods about not seeing her family, or not seeing her boyfriend. It’s plausible that she would feel lost and alone, but I would like to see the progression of those feelings. They are pretty much one-track now, and the long stretches of bleakness veer dangerously close to self-pity. Between the magical lectures and the internal monologues about missing home, Tricks for Free’s prose dragged.
And even though the reasons for it are internally logical, the absence of the Aeslin mice was a deficit for me. Another deficit in terms of tension and stakes was the absence of the Covenant. Within one Covenant member in particular, Annie has a real adversary, a true believer, and I am waiting for the book where the two of them face off.
I did get a small Aeslin mice fix at the end of this edition, because there is a novella which is narrated in part by Mindy, the brave Aeslin mouse who went to England with Annie. While the novella was light, and the other half was about Annie’s boyfriend Sam, I felt a little better spending some time with the mice.
INCRYPTID is still an interesting series, but I’m not sure there’s a compelling need to read Tricks for Free unless you are a completist.
InCryptid— (2012- ) Publisher: Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night… The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity — and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…