Fiction Reviews

Relight My Fire

(2024) C. K. McDonnell, Transworld, £18.99, hrdbk, 517pp, ISBN 978-0-857-50535-4


Welcome back once again to the Stranger Times, Manchesterís go-to (fictional) publication for the paranormal, the conspiratorial and the plain inexplicable, for a fourth instalment in this comic urban fantasy series.

Operating from a disused church, the Timesis overseen by cantankerous hard-drinking editor Vincent Banecroft, with the help of a found family of misfit journalists. Over the course of the series (now four books strong) the news team find themselves increasingly involved in the supernatural politics of the city.

Relight My Fire Ė all the books in the series bar the first reference a song by a famous Manchester band - opens with someone falling from the sky in unexplained circumstances right in front of Stella, the Timesí magical girl-in-residence. As they have a strong interest in helping Stella keep a low profile, her colleagues at the Times become involved in the resulting police investigation with the aim of proving she was not involved.

Banecroft meanwhile has other things on his mind Ė a seventeenth century ghost dressed like the Quaker Oats Man is threatening him with damnation for crimes against the dead committed in a previous novel in the series. He has one shot at redemption: preventing a greater offence being perpetrated on the spirit world.

These problems turn out to have much in common. Resolving them brings the Times team into contact with colourful characters including a former Britpop heartthrob, a mad scientist and her roadie, the residents of a hotel for down-and-out faerie, at least one former Prime Minister reanimated as a zombie and a ghoul called Brian.

This was my first encounter with the Stranger Times series and letís start by saying that itís refreshing to read UK urban fantasy set outside London. Author (and Manchester via Dublin transplant C. K. McDonnell) does give the book a clear sense of place, from the Arndale Centre to the moors, with the odd and uncanny oozing out between the cracks in reality. If heís trying to do for the Rainy City what Ben Aaronovitch has done for the Big Smoke, then heís certainly heading in the right direction.

The plot is fast-paced and while you can broadly see where itís going the journey itself is mostly entertaining. McDonnellís comedy background ensures a steady stream of material, not all of which lands perfectly but thereís always another gag or more banter along in a minute, and when itís good, itís very good. The end result is more or less Aaronovitch with a dash of Robert Rankin.

The Times journalists make for good protagonists too, with the plot being anchored nicely by their role as inveterate story-chasers. That said, if the book has one main weakness itís that they and the other characters do tend towards caricature. This is of course a risk in comic writing. However, the occasional lapse into two dimensions doesnít detract that much from the overall enjoyment on offer here.

Relight My Fire works reasonably well as a standalone novel (and does a good job of getting new readers onboard at this point) but is probably best read as part of the series. I for one will be going back to see what Iíve missed.

Tim Atkinson

See also Arthur's review of Relight My Fire.


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