Backpacking Through Bedlam by Seanan McGuire (InCryptid #12)

Reunion, noun:

1. The state of being united again.

Reconciliation, noun:

1. An act of reconciling, as when former enemies agree to an amiable truce.

2. The process of making consistent or compatible.

3. See also "impossible."

Alice Price-Healy gave up her life for fifty years to focus completely on the search for her missing husband. The danger of focus like that is that it leaves little room for thinking about what happens after...and now that she's finally managed to find Thomas, she has no idea what she's supposed to do next. The fact that he comes with a surrogate daughter who may or may not have some connection to Alice's recently adopted grandson is just icing on the complicated cake.

So the three of them are heading for the most complicated place in the universe: they're going home.

But things on Earth have changed while Alice, Thomas, and Sally have been away. The Covenant of St. George, antagonized by Verity's declaration of war and Sarah's temporary relocation of an entire college campus, is trying to retake North America from the cryptids and cryptozoologists who've been keeping the peace for the past hundred years. And they're starting in New York.

Alice and company have barely been back for an hour before the Ocean Lady and the Queen of the Routewitches are sending them to New York to help, and they find themselves embroiled in the politics of dragons, kidnappings, and of course, the most dangerous people of all: family.

Getting "back to normal" may be the hardest task Alice has undertaken yet.

YEAR: 2023
LENGTH: 447 pages
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Fantasy

*This is the twelfth book in an ongoing series, and by necessity commenting on this book spoils the events of some previous books. If you're interested in the idea of a family of cryptozoologists working to understand the cryptids around them and to defend them from a single-minded xenophobic organization (with more than a few ghosts and some dimension-hopping woven in for good measure), then stop here and go read DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON, the first book in the series.

Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Secondary Character(s), Gay/Achillean Minor Character(s), Bi/Pan Minor Character(s).

BACKPACKING THROUGH BEDLAM Follows Alice, Thomas, and Sally as they work to resettle the remaining refugees, and finally get a chance to go home to Earth. It's a place that hasn't really been home for any of them in a long time, but Alice, at least, is determined to try. She's been on a single-minded quest to find and retrieve her missing husband, stolen by the Crossroads on the strength of a bargain he made to save her life before they were a couple. Sally, too, was taken through a bargain, where the Crossroads were willing to take her as payment for something a previous bargain made it impossible for them to grant. Now, the Crossroads are dead, Thomas has de facto adopted Sally, and Alice is adjusting to Thomas as he is now, with both of them changed by their decades apart. Of course, this is an InCryptid book, so barely are they home in Buckley before they have leave again to deal with the war the Covenant is waging on their family and on the continent, this time in New York.

This is the second book in a row with Alice narrating. She’s finally reunited with Thomas after fifty years of searching, and now must do a few last things before they can figure out what home looks like with the two of them in the same place. It wraps up a few things left hanging, specifically, but not only what happens to the refugees who made it out of the bottle dimension with them. Additionally, it’s obvious that Sally is the same girl who was James's best friend before the Crossroads took her, and I’m pretty happy with how that plotline is moved forward. 

There’s a new storyline related to the dragons in New York City, but even that is an opportunity to move forward things which were established in previous books. Because Alice is (mostly) new to this particular iteration of the Covenant's attacks upon her family, it provides opportunities to explain things in a way that should help get newer readers up to speed, while having a lot of "where are they now" updates for anyone who’s been reading the series since the beginning. As a sequel, this has specific updates that go back to the very first novel in the series, requiring at least some knowledge from almost every main character’s arc. It’s a pretty direct follow up to Verity's challenge to the Covenant, Sarah's developing powers as Jorhlac, James's history, and, of course, Alice’s search for Thomas. There’s a specific issue with the dragons which is both introduced and resolved here, and drives the plot for the second half of the book. This is not the last book in the series, in fact, it seems like they’re just getting started. In addition to whatever Alice and Thomas are going to decide to do, it seems pretty clear to me that future books will perhaps focus on James and Sally as adoptees into the family (by different routes). 

Alice was the narrator in the previous book, and her narrative voice is consistent with that. This would not be a good starting point for new readers, as so much of this is meaningful and provides catharsis because of having spent the rest of the series hoping that Alice would find Thomas. There's a lot of worldbuilding, but even more character development. It’s relying on things established throughout the series leading up to this point, so most of what remains that requires being explicitly shown is given through how characters behave, and what they choose to say. That goes for enemies and allies alike. At this point I'm so familiar with the setting (through the main series and associated short stories) that it's hard for me to say if anything would need more explanation than it received for a new reader, but if someone really wanted to get into the series late, and not go all the way back to the beginning, then I would recommend either starting with the first book from Annie’s perspective (MAGIC FOR NOTHING), or one book before this one (SPELUNKING THROUGH HELL). Starting with Annie’s perspective, leading into meeting James, give some perspective for Sally's presence, and also can be enough of a leadup for what happened in this book that anything else could just be summarized to catch up the reader. The next best thing would be starting with the book before this one, and therefore (at minimum) witnessing Alice and Thomas's reunion, as that’s extremely important for this story. 

There’s a bit of an explanatory tone that I’ve noticed over time in the series. I’m not totally sure how much is a deliver a choice for Alice as a character and how much it’s something in the general style of Seanan as an author. Alice is trying to figure out what it looks like now that she has Thomas back, but part of the problem is they keep not getting a chance to just be, and figure each other out. Also, Thomas has adopted Sally, who is his second in command when they were stuck in a bottle dimension, and who has now been accepted by the mice as a member of the family. 

I like the ending for the main story, I think it gets enough things for the plot to feel settled while still giving an idea of where they’ll go next. What cements this impression for me is the choice of story for the novella at the end. I especially enjoy when they show things from the perspectives of one of the mice, and this one alternates between two narrators in a way that works really well.

Graphic/Explicit CW for abandonment, gore, gun violence, animal death.

Moderate CW for cursing, racism, xenophobia, grief, kidnapping, confinement, child abuse, emotional abuse, blood, fire/fire injury, violence, self harm, genocide, war, child death, death.

Minor CW for depression, panic attacks/disorders, sexual content, drug use, vomit, excrement, pregnancy, terminal illness, torture.

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