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Are malteds and milkshakes the same thing?

Book #3: Sparrow Hill Road
Author: Seanan McGuire
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

I've been a big fan of Seanan McGuire for a few years now, but I wasn't immediately interested in picking this one up. Short story collections tend to have a higher bar to cross for me than novels, and the fact that they're all based around the same character's adventures actually made it a bit less appealing. But then our main character Rose has a cameo in one of her other series, and that was that - I didn't have any other of her stuff left to read, and I was curious enough to try.

So our story: Rose Marshall was forced into an accident on Sparrow Hill in her small hometown of Buckley, Michigan, by Bobby Cross, a man who made a bargain for immortality at the crossroads, and now can keep it only through taking in the souls of others who die on the road. But Rose, forever sweet 16 now, doesn't go away. She stays around as a hitchhiking ghost, and gains over the years a reputation - the Phantom Prom Date to humans, a knowledgeable road spirit in the ghost realm - and a greater knowledge of her powers and how the ghost roads work. Among those powers are the ability to become immaterial if she doesn't have a freely given jacket, and to sense upcoming death, and the scent of what kind it is - sometimes, she can stop it before it happens, and she takes it on herself to do so. Much of the action is driven by her working her way around accidents, or around tense situations; usually, they involve one or the other of those abilities.

The stories span decades, and often will jump back and forth time-wise in a given story itself. But mainly, the book hits that sweet spot of ghost stories: a sense of fear and occasional horror, yes, since they're supposed to be scary, at least some of the time. But often, it's the wistfulness of time changing: the differences across time of the people she meets, and of herself, as well; her connections to the people she once loved, her family and the boy she loved; the feel of an America that's just left a bit behind, off the beaten track, shading into the spirit world. That sense of not quite being right and being there is pretty ghostly.

And it's McGuire, so there's some good creativity on display in the stories, too. Some is in the locations: wandering down the Atlantic highway to meet a witch named Apple was very atmospheric, but my personal favorite was the Last Dance diner, the final place for a soul to stop before heading off into the darkness, and how it felt in contrast to the diners I've ended up in over the past few years. And some was in the scenarios: playing with ghost mythology, both for what you expect going in and then what gets et up by her over the course of the book, works well.

The collection does rather have the problems short story collections often have, though: the stories do vary in strength, there are kind of diminishing returns on a couple close to the end, the repetition of the setup and who she is feels like it came from the stories being anthologized, and the ending to it all wasn't as strong as what I'd normally expect from her work.

But overall, I'm glad I came around on Rose - enough that I already bough a Last Dance t-shirt. Hopefully, though, this won't be the last dance we have with the character or this view on America.
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