Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Charming by Elliott James


Charming by Elliot James
Orbit Books/Hachette Book Group
Book One of Pax Arcana
Urban Fantasy
Published Sep 24, 2013

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

John Charming comes from a line of knights charged with upholding the Pax Arcana - a spell that keeps mortals from knowing about the magical creatures on earth. Any creature that threatens to expose that supernatural realm is fair game for the Knights Templar. 

Unfortunately for John, his mother was bitten by a werewolf before he was born and has inherited both the need to be a knight and some of the qualities of the werewolf. His fellow knights were not, ah, amused.

Hiding out as a bartender, John's life takes a turn when a beautiful blonde and a vampire both walk into his bar. Surviving them will be a trial fit for a 'prince'....

This is an urban fantasy tale from a male perspective (both from the first person point of view of a male character, and written by a male author). James' book calls to mind comparisons the Hunted series by Kevin Hearne and (inevitably?) Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. I think Butcher's work has a bit more depth, but I could see this on par with Hearne's material. Another book or two in the series should solidify where Charming belongs in the pecking order, as it were.

Shaking things up from my normal review format for a moment:  this book is all about momentum, which both works and doesn't work. 

Momentum is a key part of every fight scene (of which there are many!). James writes these in a meticulous fashion, tracking body position and motion in a distinctive way that I suspect means I could pick his fight scenes out of a line-up. I liked it, but it did  give some fights a slow motion effect. 

Pacing is definitely a weak point for this book. It starts off quite slow because of large amounts of exposition, and then builds to a very enjoyable clip by the end of the book. Truthfully, after the first thirty pages, I thought this was going to be a write off, but by the time I finished?  I can't wait to read the next book in the series. 

There's also John's personal dilemma. The guy's clearly struggling to come to terms with his inner beast, and this is another area in which momentum comes to play. Once he starts trying to work through his conflict, things start to snowball - I can't say more without getting spoilery!

What worked for me:

The Pax Arcana is a clever device for keeping the normal population unaware of the supernatural. I like the need to uphold it with the Knights, I like that it has limitations and that modern technology places new tensions on its effectiveness. In general, I liked the world that James is building here, even if I don't agree with how much of it he threw at us in big chunks.

This book has an abundance of interesting characters. John Charming intrigued me - both as a male main character which is the minority in urban fantasy, but as a man who has some fairly serious issues to work through above and beyond the vampire threat. I liked that he seemed like a real guy. There's also a team of people that I easily would have spent more time with - Sig and Molly in particular made an impression.

I found the author interview at the end of the book interesting and it  explained some of the issues I had with the book. It's worth a read just to see where James is coming from and if you read between the lines, I think it's possible to infer discussions he had with his agent or editor which was pretty informative.

What didn't work for me:

There are a number of plot points that are left dangling or that are not fully explored. Without being too spoiler-y, there's a love quadrangle and one member of it is given fairly short shrift. The material that doesn't really conclude in this book is easily fodder for future books, so I'll look forward to James making use of those pieces. 

The exposition and weighty descriptions were all indicators of a rich world that James has created. In the interview at the back of the book, he mentions just how much detail he developed that didn't make it to the page - including several more interludes. Thank goodness these were removed! The effects on the pacing of the story would have been dreadful. I think it still could have been tightened up, particularly in the first several chapters.

For example - Chapter 7: How to Ghoul-proof your Home - includes a couples pages of information about the defenses John has set up at home. However, none of these seem to come into play at all - even when a potential threat *does* enter his home later in the book. There's no payoff for wading through the description, in this case. It's all interesting material, but it's presented as these info dumps that can be off-putting.

The only disappointment I really had by the end of the book was that there weren't more traditional fairy tale components worked into the story. Hopefully more will be present in future books in the series.

Bottom Line:

When I started reading the book, it was dragging so much, I wondered how I would finish it in time for the review date I had set for it. But once the vampire hunt plot heated up, I had a hard time putting the book down to deal with life. I'm definitely interested in reading a second book in this series!

4 stars
For fans of urban fantasy, of Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series, of strong women and the men who adore them.

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