The Summer of Completely Usual Strangeness by Matthew S. Cox

Front cover of The Summer of Completely Usual Strangeness by Matthew S. CoxCox blends a nuanced spin on urban fantasy tropes with character-driven drama and fast-paced action, providing another engaging instalment of modern vampire story.

This novel is the fifteenth volume of Cox’s Vampire Innocent series. Spoilers for previous volumes might cross your path ahead.

Ashley’s decision to secretly become a vampire has freed Sarah from angst over losing her best friend, freeing her up to worry about how she can help two fledgling vampires learn everything they need to know when she’s still learning herself. Usually that inexperience would protect her from getting too dragged into vampire politics; however, that insignificance also makes her the ideal person to investigate a brutal attack on vampire society without anyone paying attention.

The book opens exactly where the previous volume left off with Ashley revealing she has become a vampire. Cox skilfully presents the scene with the same blend of emotional depth and goofiness that has existed both through Sarah and Ashley’s friendship and the series in general; this creates a strong sense of Sarah’s ambivalence over her best friend being a vampire while avoiding a descent into the maudlin.

This also provides a clear foundation for the ongoing plot thread of Sarah now being, in her own mind at least, responsible for the survival and comfort of two new vampires rather than one; a challenge that is made more complex by Chloe and Ashley having many of the same primary needs but being noticeably different people both to the outside world and in themselves.

As vampires, at least as far as Sarah was led to believe, remain mentally the same forever, this also sparks more pondering of what seeing the world as a teenager—or seven-year-old—forever might be like.

Having shown the reader the rich expanse of his supernatural world and societies in previous books, Cox uses the presence of more than one Innocent to dive deeper into both what the bloodline’s qualities might be and what else might shape what kind of powers a fledgling gains. While at its foundation a deeply philosophical and metaphysical enquiry, this thread of teaching new vampires while learning about them unfolds with the same mix of farce and action that pervades the previous volumes; thus readers will find it as entertaining as it is informative.

In parallel with this, Sarah is swiftly drawn into the investigation of an attack on Arthur Wolent. Continuing the theme of what it is to be Innocent, Sarah suffers both the advantage that she doesn’t come across as a mighty vampire threat so whoever is behind it isn’t paying attention to what she does and the disadvantage that she doesn’t come across as a might vampire threat so people who might have answers sometimes ignore her questions too.

Rather than rely merely on the direct conflict between spending time training Ashley and Chloe and spending time investigating the attack for tension, Cox provides a more complex interweaving: helping Arthur Wolent gains political capital which might mean the benefit of the doubt if someone makes an issue of whether Chloe should be allowed to live; asking questions is about as tame as vampire “work” gets so this could be an opportunity to include the people she cares about without real risk.

This balancing of normal and risky vampire existence is contrasted and intermingled with Sarah’s attempts to maintain a human-ish life and family. The (not so) Littles have their own issues and desires, both mundane and mystical, that provide both side plots and yet another thing that can cause Sarah to agonise between enabling and risking having happen without her there to help. As with the other facets, these parts provide an engaging blend of action, drama, and comedy.

While this book rests more strongly on the previous one than most of the other volumes and leaves plenty of ongoing (un)life complexity for Sarah to struggle with it, the plot arcs are concluded or brought to a satisfactory point to pause; thus, readers are unlikely to feel cheated of an ending.

Sarah, while displaying a combination of recklessness and doom-fearing entirely plausible for a teenager, remains fundamentally a well-balanced and proactive protagonist; as such her moments of introspection or short-sightedness are likely to make readers more sympathetic rather than irritate them.

Ashley is skilfully portrayed, still obviously the Ashley of prior books yet also fundamentally altered by her vampirism.

The remainder of the supporting cast are similarly fully consistent with both the world and any appearances in prior books without feeling stale or flat. Cox’s facility at crafting engaging characters is perhaps especially noticeable in Chloe who is immediately recognisable as a young girl while seeming both entirely distinct from both other significant young female characters and entirely fitting for an adult rather than middle-grade novel.

Overall, I enjoyed this book greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a vampire novel that combines complex character with well-crafted action.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.

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