There are Dark Forces at work in our world (and in Manchester in particular) and so thank God The Stranger Times is on hand to report them. A weekly newspaper dedicated to the weird and the wonderful (but more often the weird) of modern life, it is the go-to publication for the unexplained and inexplicable . . .
At least that’s their pitch. The reality is rather less auspicious. Their editor is a drunken, foul-tempered and
-mouthed husk of a man who thinks little (and believes less) of the publication he edits, while his staff are a ragtag group of wastrels and misfits, each with their own secrets to hide and axes to grind. And as for the assistant editor . . . well, that job is a revolving door – and it has just revolved to reveal Hannah Willis, who’s got her own set of problems.
It’s when tragedy strikes in Hannah’s first week on the job that The Stranger Times is forced to do some serious, proper, actual investigative journalism. What they discover leads them to a shocking realisation: that some of the stories they’d previously dismissed as nonsense are in fact terrifyingly, gruesomely real. Soon they come face-to-face with darker foes than they could ever have imagined. It’s one thing reporting on the unexplained and paranormal but it’s quite another being dragged into the battle between the forces of Good and Evil . . .
First of all, I’d like to thank Thomas Hill and Penguin Books for the review copy – and can only apologise that this review is later than I’d wanted to post it. 2021 has been a busy one for reading.
The book cover is clever, once you’ve read so far through the book, you can pick out individual scenes on it which is fun in itself. I love the way it all ties into different plot points.
The Stranger Times is the epitome of a spit-at-the-page-in-laughter-while-you’re-turning-it book. And turn the pages you do. Fast. You can’t stop because the prose is so delightfully fluid, so entertaining that you’ve got no choice but to read on – while my partner’s asking me if I’m going to do anything else today, I kind of nod and carry on because the book’s got me gripped. I loved it. It’s humorous like the greats and I hadn’t laughed at a book this much since I read Kings of the Wyld. It also has enough magic and immortal cabals to keep even the most die-hard SFF fans (me) enthralled. Heck, I bought myself a fancy signed hardback copy on release because I enjoyed it so much.
Hannah, the MC, has fled from her marital home, leaving it charred and burned because her husband was a serial cheat and now, she’s looking for a new job with a CV that screams stay at home wife. One that she’d been having trouble getting her anywhere: the only place that would have her is The Stranger Times – run by Vincent Banecroft and his motley crew (Reggie, Ox, Stella and Grace to name a few.) Hannah Finds herself embroiled in the strange news, in UFO sightings and pub toilet hauntings – trying to keep herself aloft despite the many strange freelancers and members of the public waiting to share their strange stories: alien abductions, sleeping with aliens, alien probing … the list goes on. All that topped with a boss that seemingly hates her, and everything around him. Only, there’s mysterious deaths about Manchester and the police aren’t doing their job – so The Stranger Times investigate when it leads back to a freelancer they know. There’s also a strange American man about, whose POV we see mixed up in magic that couldn’t possibly be a parlour trick. It’s dangerous, real magic. The plot kind of crept up on me and surprised in a good way; I did not expect there to be this level of world-building and magic. It seemed to me to be about a paper that reported on the strange and wonderful only for that strange and wonderful to manifest is an intriguing way. There weren’t many moments that I didn’t have a smile on my face reading this, it was thoroughly fun, a riot to read; though, it knew when to be serious and when to get real.
Hannah is a great main character but it’s the characters she shares the spotlight with that make it fantastic; there’s a real sense of found family by the end here. A misfit group of people that just fit together. I enjoyed the way they interacted which each other – their quirks just seemed to mesh. A UFO enthusiast that doesn’t quite believe the tosh about ghosts and vice versa. The word ‘character’ truly would describe anyone who works for The Stranger Times, they’re an odd lot.
The dialogue was a marvel to read; it wasn’t only the fact that McDonnell wasn’t afraid to let long sequences of dialogue run on – that can sometimes be a bit unnatural – but it was the fact that it felt real, incredibly human while it did. Each character has an incredibly nuanced tone of voice which fits the general prose of the work. I could hear each character speaking loud and clear and they were as different as possible.
I loved the magic in this, and won’t go into too much detail as that is something that holds the mystery – there’s an undercurrent that slowly rises up and thrashes you with its twists and turns. An entire backstory to this is cleverly revealed in one little story and oh my is it cool.
Overall, if you love a laugh and don’t mind your fantasy set in the UK, this is certainly a book for you. It has magic enough to suit those who don’t usually read this type of urban fantasy (coming from someone who never reads it) and the characters are fantastic and well-crafted – there’s someone in there for everyone to love.