ODDER STILL by DN Bryn (BOOK REVIEW)
Content warnings: (from the author, edited for length, but click here for the full list) alcoholism and drunkenness; animaldeath, often violent, including cats and dogs; general fantasy violence with minor fantasy gore; references to feeling a parasite move inside the body of the point of view character; drowning; scientific experimentation/vivisection/dissection; body horror.
Rubem of No-Man’s Land was content keeping to his wine, his pets, and his extensive collection of fishnets.
But since a sentient, fuel-producing parasite bonded to his brainstem, every morally-depraved scientist and hardcore rebel for a hundred miles wants to ruthlessly dissect him. The parasite itself is no better, influencing his emotions and sassing him with his own memories as it slowly takes over his body.
The only person offering Rubem help is Tavish K. Findlay, a dashing and manipulative philanthropist whose mother’s fuel company monopolizes their corrupt underwater city with an iron claw. She desperately wants to tear Rubem apart for the parasite before those who oppose her can do the same. Her son is irresistibly charismatic though, and after a lifetime of being kicked out and disavowed, Rubem is desperate to believe in the friendship Tavish offers.
With revolutionary plots and political schemes tangling his every choice, Rubem must soon decide whether or not to trust Tavish in his fight against the parasite’s growing control.
Odder Still is the start of a new series in Bryn’s These Treacherous Tides world – I really loved both previous books in the setting, Our Bloody Pearl and Once Stolen, so I was really excited for this one! This book is much darker, with more of a thriller feel to it, while still making great use of the almost steampunk-ish mix of fantasy creatures and science that makes this world feel unique. It’s also just as wonderfully inclusive in its characters, with a world that’s both queernorm and casually accommodating of disability. That’s not to say that everything is super fluffy – the story tackles classism and racism incisively – but it’s refreshing to read something where neither queerness nor disability is wielded against the characters. I suppose in a world where you have shapeshifting selkies, trans people are perfectly mundane, and if you have to make accommodations for finfolk to get around on land, you might as well build them in for everyone.
Rubem, the main character, was introduced as a side character in Once Stolen, and it’s really fun to see him come to the forefront here! He’s a very complex character, one who battles his depression and alcoholism but also who holds an intense kindness inside of him; his love of animals and deep desire for justice makes him enjoyable even as you watch him being a total disaster. While this book would be a good entry point to the world if you want to start here, I do recommend reading Once Stolen either before or after this if you want to understand Rubem’s backstory fully, as the story opens in media res with a scene that features his pre-existing nemesis, Lilias, and there are a lot of references to his homeland, the Murk, which I think would benefit from the gorgeous scene-setting of Once Stolen, which takes place there. I’m not saying you’ll be lost without that context, but since I personally had it, I think it made his sense of homesickness and the intensity of his interactions with Lilias land a little harder than it might to a new reader.
That being said, Rubem’s journey with the parasite is new to him as well as to the reader, and watching him learn more about it and how to interact with it was one of my favourite things about the book! There’s a smidgen of romance here, too, and I loved trans selkie love interest Tavish, who is the best kind of cinnamon roll, but since this is the first book of a series that will follow Rubem and Tavish through more adventures, the focus is much more on the adventure side of things. What we do get of their budding relationship is swoonworthy, with some wonderfully intense moments, but expect far more chase scenes and weird science than kisses!
I’m trying very hard not to give too much of the plot away, as this is one of those books that stacks up twists and revelations like a house of cards, but what I will quickly mention is the vivid and inventive setting. Both previous books in the These Treacherous Tides series had very nature-based, self-contained settings with minimal casts, but Odder Still takes us into the shining but flawed underwater city of Maraheem and gives us the sense that this world is massive and intricate. It’s got something of a Bioshock feel in its mix of glamour and grunge, of drama and drudgery, and it’s a great backdrop for the action-packed plot.
If you’re in the mood for a unique fantasy story with thriller vibes, Odder Still is a great bet!