This review contains minor spoilers for Vigil by Angela Slatter.
What If: There was a secret society of mythological creatures hanging out in Brisbane, Queensland.
I am going to admit my bias upfront: I am a born and bred Queenslander and have called Brisbane my home for over five years. My approach to reading Vigil came from an insider perspective as I frequent many of the places mentioned in the book.
Verity Fassbinder is the daughter of a Weyrd (supernatural) parent and one normal (human) parent. She no supernatural powers of her own but can walk between the worlds.
Verity tries to balance her Weyrd job of hunting creatures who threaten the normal in Brisbane with her own normal existence but the two refuse to stay separate.
Either it’s her new human boyfriend finding out about the dark things that lurk beneath Brisbane’s sunny veneer or her weyrd ex-boyfriend dragging her into life threatening situations (and intimating new boyfriend).
I attended the Brisbane launch for Vigil and Slatter was clear she wanted to write a distinctly Brisbane (and by extension Australian) urban fantasy rather than something generic. Cultural cringe in Australian fiction is ineluctable and yet there are very few times when the Australianisms used cause such cringe (the only time I personally cringed was when winnie blues were mentioned. This was more to do with my teenage experience with said winnie blues rather than Slatter’s writing).
The thing that truly sets Vigil apart from many urban fantasies is it’s setting which is Brisbane.
If you haven’t visited Brisbane, Vigil paints a rather accurate picture (apart of the supernatural parts) of the culture and landmarks.
Brisbane is Queensland’s state capital. It is the third largest city in Australia. Queensland unfortunately gets branded as “the backwards state” compared to its larger counterparts (only by population) New South Wales and Victoria. I feel like Brisbane’s reputation as the capital of the backwards state and known as the “country town capital” works brilliantly as the setting for all things weyrd.
There is nothing generic about Brisbane as an urban fantasy setting, even if you were reading this as someone who has never even been to the city, you get the feeling the author knows it intimately and loves it despite all its flaws. I’d compare it to reading about New York City which is the setting for so many works of fiction and non-fiction, you can often tell people’s relationship with the city through their writing and it can often be a character of its own.
Slatter has managed to do this for Brisbane in Vigil.
Verity Fassbinder is the daughter of a kinderfresser who stole children for the affluent weyrd families. He was caught by the normal police twenty-three years ago and jailed as a paedophile. His actions almost exposed the weyrd to the normal society. Verity is constantly hounded by her father’s reputation every time she associates with weyrd society. She is also actively discriminated against as a “half breed”. Her abrasive and wise cracking personality developed due to this burden as well as knowing she has no family or no place where she truly belongs. She’s not a super special heroine like many urban fantasies, she’s just a woman who has an in-demand skill, does the job and goes home. Her age isn’t explicitly given but I’d guess she’s in her late twenties or early thirties based on a few facts thrown in.
Zvezdomire “Bela” Tepes is Verity’s ex-boyfriend and her boss. He works for the “Council” who try their best to watch over the weyrd. He’s incredibly handsome and incredibly old, he came from the ‘old country’ (somewhere in Eastern Europe that isn’t specifically named) and like many weyrd he has lived for a long time. Slatter decides to use the ‘young looking but actually old’ supernatural trope and turn it on it’s head. Without giving away part of the plot, there is no love triangle in this book and there is no back and forth ‘will they won’t they’ romance. It has a realistic view of a relationship between a young woman and a person who is hundreds of years old but looks young. Bela drives most of the plot in the beginning but steps aside in the second act as Verity come into her own.
Ziggi Hassman drives Verity around for the entire book. He technically works for Bela but he has a soft spot for Verity. The book doesn’t reveal much about him other than he drives a weyrd cab, loves cake and has a Taser. Despite the lack of details, the relationship between Verity and Ziggi is portrayed so well you feel like you know much more than you actually do.
David is Verity’s normal love interest. He’s a computer programmer and lives at the Woolstore Apartments at Teneriffe. I mention the apartments because I always drool over them and imagine what it would be like to live in them. It was almost like wish fulfilment.
Verity feels like she doesn’t belong in either the normal or the weyrd world and yet she stays in Brisbane because it is the closest thing to belonging she can find. She still lives in the home her grandparents left her and hasn’t changed much about it. It reflects that she only truly felt safe there with them and doesn’t want to leave even though they have long gone.
The setting is so important in this novel compliments the fact that despite everything, Verity believes Brisbane is where she belongs even if she never feels completely at ease in either society. The way Verity sees Brisbane with detail and loving familiarity reflects this.
Verity feels so torn between the monster her father was and her deepest loving memories of him. Verity’s upbringing by her grandparents who loved her but slightly feared the weyrd half of her affected her in such a way she generally keeps everyone at a distance until they can prove multiple times they are loyal to her. Even then, Verity tends to pick up people who are like surrogate family – Ziggi is like a father figure and despite her romantic past with Bela, he’s almost like an older brother to her. Her neighbour Mel is like her sister which contrasts to Mel’s actual sister Rose who is a drunken mess who stole Mel’s husband. It feels like the message is that while family is important, your family isn’t always the closest blood relations.
Vigil is a well written, tightly plotted urban fantasy. It explores deep themes of belonging and family without ever pausing it’s fast paced and tightly plotted story. With a well-rounded cast of characters, a likeable protagonist and writing that feels genuinely Australian without the cultural cringe, Vigil is an excellent read.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Vigil is Angela Slatter’s debut novel. It is the first in a series with the second book to be released in July 2017.
Is Brisbane a great place for a fantasy setting? Is cultural cringe only an issue in Australia or for other cultures? Start a conversation by commenting below or sharing on social media.