review: charming

Charming by Elliott James (2013)

Charming is the first novel in the Pax Arcana series by Elliott James.  When I stumbled upon this book on Amazon, the first blurb before the actual book blurb made references not only to Harry Dresden but also Dean Winchester and urban fantasy.  How was I supposed to resist? Especially when I was able to buy it at a reduced price? Well, I couldn’t resist, but let’s clarify–while the (arguably) main character of this novel, John Charming, might feel comfortable having drinks with Harry and Dean (as the blurb suggested) don’t confuse John Charming with Harry or Dean.  All they really have in common is that they fight monsters.

Look.  Anyone who knows me or who has seen any reviews on this blog knows that Harry Dresden is, in my humble opinion, the male protagonist par excellence in the urban fantasy genre, with Atticus O’Sullivan coming in a very close second.  Inevitably, any new series I start that has a first-person narrator in what is promised to be an urban fantasy setting is going to be measured by those two characters.  Sorry.  That’s just the way it is.  Which leads me to the male protagonist–John Charming.  John used to be a knight of the Knights Templar, who were forced into a pact with the Fae to protect the Pax Arcana–the magic that prevents humans from realizing that there really are supernatural creatures among them.  Each knight is under the power of a geas that demands his or her allegiance to protecting the Pax or else suffer the consequences.  James spends a lot of time in the novel building the world, and it’s done well, with bits of the world and how it functions and operates, as well as John’s own place within the world, are revealed piece by piece in a way that feels natural and provides additional opportunities for John, the first person narrator, to show his personality and directly address readers and pull them deeper into the story. Very much like Harry and Atticus, John is an outcast from the Knights Templar and an eventual showdown with his previous family looms on the horizon, though I’ll say that doesn’t happen in this first installment of the series.

One of the charming aspects of the novel is the allusions and references it makes to notable representatives of the genre it inhabits.  There is a direct reference to The Vampire Diaries (though you’d have had to watch the show to catch it) and there are also direct references to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as well as Scooby Doo.  The two are even more interesting in that John makes a specific reference to the Mystery Machine as well as the group he falls into as the scooby gang, which only adds another layer to the references to Buffy.  These aren’t accidental, of course, as this novel is concerned with destroying a vampire hive.  This being said, I have a lot of problems with the scooby gang, AKA the supporting cast of characters.

I said above that John is, nominally, our main protagonist.  After all, the first novel in this series bears his last name.  Of course he’s the main character, right? Well, for about sixty percent of the novel, I wasn’t entirely sure. John begins his story by telling of Sig’s arrival into the bar where he works as a bartender.  He’s not sure exactly what kind of supernatural is, but eventually he learns that she’s a Valkyrie.  This is all fine, and personally, I appreciate James giving us a strong female character who kicks ass and can more than take care of herself.  Sig is also the leader of the scooby gang, and again, that’s great.  Except…Sig makes some decisions in the novel that I have a hard time swallowing, particularly in light of the fact that I think I’m supposed to view her as someone that John can trust, and yet, some of the things she does makes that a questionable assertion. Still another problem I have is that John’s and Sig’s roles in the novel are confused, or at least, they are for me, particularly when the blurb invokes Harry Dresden.  Is John merely the newest recruit into Sig’s “monster-hunting club” or is he the one leading everyone else into the fray? There are moments when as a narrator he’s conscious of this confusion–letting readers know that the reason he remains silent or defers to Sig is because he knows a team can only have one leader.  If Sig is that leader, then fine, but I still have trouble understanding why it’s not Sig’s story rather than John’s?  Or is this intended to be part of the tension and conflict in the novel that at some point will be resolved? Because anyone who has watched Buffy, the Vampire Slayer knows that fighting the monster of the week was always a team effort, but no matter how many looks we get into Willow’s or Xander’s lives, no matter how pivotal they are to ultimate success, Buffy’s journey and Buffy’s story always remains central.  In Charming, John’s story and his journey don’t feel like the central focal point, instead he feels like a supporting character in the story he’s telling readers.  I don’t think that’s James’ intent, but I could be wrong about that.

Still, there are definitely parts of the story that are successful. Though I’m critical of John’s place within the story, I also can see James building a definite character arc for him.  Without a doubt, John develops and grows as a character throughout the novel, and there are several significant points of change and there’s also self-realization of his evolution at the end of the novel. From a craft perspective, this part is well done. The plot itself hangs together and there are plenty of action and fight scenes with good description and attention to detail.

Whenever I read the first book in a series, at its conclusion I always ask myself if I’m going to read the next book.  I thought this book was fine, but in all honesty I don’t see myself picking up the next book, Daring.  I know that first books can be compared to pilot episodes of new television shows–sometimes the writer just needs time to work out the flaws and kinks. At this point, I’m just not willing to come back for more.

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