1 December, 2022

LitStack Review: Uncanny Times, by Laura Anne Gilman

It’s November 1913, and the brother/sister team of Aaron and Rosemary Harker are on both a personal and professional mission – to investigate the death of their distant relative in upstate New York. That the relative had reached out to them before he died, and that the circumstances surrounding his death are suspicious to even the untrained eye despite what the police report says, is not a surprise to the Harkers, for they are Huntsmen, a covert line of (mostly) humans whose life mission is to hunt down and eradicate threats from uncanny elements – supernatural creatures – that exist in the shadows, unknown to most god fearing folks. Like the Huntsmen, themselves.

Laura Anne Gilman

As a murder mystery, Uncanny Times regulates the reader to the role of bystander. The steps the Harker siblings take to uncover the players and events with what turns out to be a multiple crime situation cannot be something we are able to intuit, for the suspected factors involved are beyond our mundane knowledge (thankfully so, given the sheer number of potentially malicious uncanny that apparently populate remote spaces and dark corners). But actually, this is not a huge detraction.

What carries this book is the atmosphere, the setting, both physical and temporal, and the way that the two main characters – and their accompanying pet/guardian/familiar (hell)hound, Botheration – move through their environment, parading as respectable young adults yet stealthily doing the unthinkable (well, to polite turn-of-the-century society, at least). The constant tension between their mission and their need for secrecy ramps up the threat from the supernatural, and you can almost feel the chill dampness in the air and intuit the flicker and smoke from the gaslamps.

There are other tensions in the book, as well. Historically, it is not the best of time to be female in small town New England society, especially when one is as smart and as spirited as Rosemary Harker. The push of industrialism, economic speculation and workers’ rights is also a strong factor in events. And then there is the tension of the sister/brother dynamic, even between a pair as focused and supportive as the Harkers, for each has secrets they hold away from the other and each has their own way of accomplishing their goals that are not always harmonious with the other.

Author Laura Anne Gilman does such a fine job of blending all these factors together that I was willing to grant her a few reprieves when the action of the story strained even a generous suspension of disbelief. There was one development toward the end of the book that had me confused as to not only its believability, but why it even existed. Still, the movement of the story and the satisfying climax of the mystery, along with as vested I had become with the Harker pair, overcame the occasional head scratching moments.

Uncanny Times is definitely a fresh take on the supernatural detective genre, and a keen player in the historical fiction fantasy genre. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of the Harkers in the future; I, for one, look forward to it.