“Ghostkin” works from a premise that will be instantly familiar to fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: an inextricable collision between the otherworld and the mundane world has forced history (since the 20th century) down an alternative route in which humans have been forced to coexist with fay, demons, spirits, and various undead horrors. However, while Ellen Mellor’s book derives its tropes from fantasy and mythology, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Bram Stoker and Norse legends, in tone it owes a good deal more to the likes of “Get Carter”. At heart, what we have here is a supernatural British gangster thriller that de-romanticises its fantasy tropes in a fashion Terry Pratchett would have approved of (One suspects the author may be a “Discworld’ fan). For the various fantasy creatures have all managed to find their niche within human society, while proving themselves just as corrupt and sordid as any humans. The faery – cruel and arrogant beings who delight in spinning glamours and illusions (again, very Pratchett-y, but also drawing on the darker roots of fantasy) – have become drug dealers. Zombies are cheap, exploitable labour (though still partial to blood frenzies and brain-eating, alas, so they need careful handling). Vampires, power-obsessed, domineering, and predatory, are the hardcore gangsters and extortionists, intent on parasitising every aspect of society. The author’s presentation of these particular villains is a strong point: denuded of all “Twilight”-esque glamour or even the “bad boy” Byronic appeal of a Christopher Lee, they are much more akin to the classic “Nosferatu”; verminous and ugly beings, occasionally pitiable but mostly repulsive, and extremely dangerous and amoral. Then there are the ghostkins, but to say too much on them would be a spoiler, suffice it to say that the book’s main character is a strikingly original fantasy creation, whose nature is explored both through plot development and flashbacks. She is also a trans character, but thankfully this is incidental – as a trans writer, I mean this passionately. It is good to see a story about a trans character that does not centre around the fact of them being trans. It communicates the sense that this has only been part of her complex life struggle, and not the be-all and end-all of who she is.
Having said that, Rachel falls firmly within the anti-hero category: not quite as ruthless and unsavoury as Jack Carter, but not so very far above that low level, and her actions and attitudes often make her a hero only by default (as the de facto villain of the book is a complete moral monster). Whether or not she learns from her experiences is debatable: the novel eschews a happy ending with firm closure, appropriately enough, true to its noirish roots. One source of evil is defeated, but in a world so corrupt, what difference can that really make? Potential readers should note that for all its deadpan, Pratchett-esque humour and quirky fantasy tropes, this is very much a dark and adult novel, with themes of drug abuse, mental abuse, human trafficking, torture, and graphic violence. Prepare to spend a lot of time in the heads of characters with unsavoury outlooks and attitudes … If you are up for a gritty, cynical take on the dark fantasy genre, however, “Ghostkin” is a compelling read that will pull you along to a thrilling and original (though well set-up) climax, albeit followed by a troubling ending. Perhaps a sequel is not out of the question?