Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review: The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff

Allie's eyes widened.  "Mom, there's a signed photograph of a minotaur on the wall behind the counter."
"Probably Boris."
"He dotted his i with a little heart."
"Definitely Boris.  Your grandmother seemed very fond of him."
Given the way Boris was built, Allie didn't doubt that in the least.
"You are in cattle country, remember."
--The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff

Jebediah Springfield: People, our search is over! On this site we shall build a new town where we can worship freely, govern justly, and grow vast fields of hemp for making rope and blankets.
Shelbyville Manhattan: Yes! And marry our cousins.
Jebediah Springfield: I was- wha... what are you talking about, Shelbyville? Why would we want to marry our cousins?
Shelbyville Manhattan: Because they're so attractive. I... I thought that was the whole point of this journey.
--The Simpsons, "Lemon of Troy."

Urban fantasy is all the rage these days, but frankly, it's not my cup of tea.  Something about the whole "our world, but with magic" rubs me the wrong way.  I think it's the way that, no matter how noble and good the protagonist in such a book appears, they are still usually a part of a vast conspiracy trying to keep the majority of the world from learning the truth about the existence of magic.  Granted, this doesn't apply to every urban fantasy series (the Stackhouse books being a case that has it both ways: the vampires are living openly, but still have a lot of skeletons (and other bodies) in their closets), but it does seem to hold for most of them, even some of the most famous ones.  (That's right, Harry Potter.  I'm calling you a lying liar who lies.  Share some of that Expecto Patronum with the rest of us.)  And really, any genre that has Still, there are a few series I keep up on.  I like  Jim Butcher's Dresden series.  Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson books.  And so, when I saw this book, and saw that Trudi Canavan had written an urban fantasy series, I thought it might be one of the good ones.

Did you catch my mistake there?  That I mixed up my female fantasy writers writing female fantasy characters?  Yeah, that mistake that you caught in a single sentence took me about 100 pages to figure out.  And at that point, it seemed a matter of honor to finish what was in front of me.  So here we are.

The Enchantment Emporium is set in--and this is somewhat a novelty for the genre--Canada, starting in a house in (or at least near) Toronto, but quickly shifting to Calgary.  The central figure is Alysha (Allie) Catherine Gale, a member of a family of witches.  Having recently lost her job, the 24 year old is granted a new opportunity when a letter arrives from her grandmother, bequeathing to Allie her grandmother's Calgary antique shop.  So she travels out west, and receives the other bequeathed item: the mystery of her grandmother's death.  She's soon joined by members of her extended family: her powerful brother David, a gruff Leprechaun named Joe, her cousin and fellow magicker Charlie (Charlotte) Gale, and her gay best friend David.  And if you think the gay best friend thing isn't a source for drama, then you're clearly not well-read in your urban fantasy, as Allie has, of course, had a crush on David all her adult life.  But all of that goes out the window when she meets Graham, a 5'10'' reporter with "remarkably blue eyes," a straight nose that's "a bit on the short side," and a "longish upper lip."  And he just happens to be investigating her grandmother's shop for a story.  Meanwhile, there's a monstrous menace afoot, and it begins with d, and rhymes with "wagon."  Will Allie be able to stop this threat from destroying Calgary?  Will she and Graham put aside their differences and work things out?  Will this working out involve a lot of sexual innuendo?

Yes, yes, and most definitely yes.

So what did I think?  Well, let's call a spade a spade.  For a large part, the urban fantasy genre is essentially a vehicle for delivering supernatural-tinged softcore porn.  There are exceptions--Dresden Files is more of a vehicle for delivering supernatural-tinged action porn--but the Enchantment Emporium is not one of them. And its take on sex flirts with some taboos.  Gale family magic works, in part, in three stages: there's the magic of the young teens and early twenty-somethings, the magic of the mothers, and the magic of the old women, each of which functions slightly differently.  It's basically a maiden-mother-crone deal, though Huff shows admirable restraint in not explicitly naming it as such.  The maiden and mother parts, in particular, function in large part through a commitment to polyandrous and polygamous relations with one's cousins.  (Hence the Simpsons' quotations.)  And, as the quotation suggests, the Gale women aren't above mating with passing minotaurs, dragons, or anything else that tickles their fancy, and if you define that as bestiality, well, to each their own.  Now, I know I have some prudish tendencies, but I'd like to think that it's okay to draw the line at sex with group sex with family members.  But really, that wasn't my problem here.  Rather, it's that we don't actually see any sex: it's one of those books that leads us directly into the bedroom, presents a chapter break just when the pants come off, and then returns to rumpled sheets and two (or in this book, two or more) rather content individuals. I'm not saying I wanted to see that hot cousin action.  (Note that the book has forced me to jump from defending myself from being a  prude to defending myself from being a pervert in about three sentences.)  As a consequence, what starts off as appearing racy quickly becomes a series of running jokes that get run into the ground.  I don't think there's a single character in this book whose sexual prowess isn't at least considered, with the possible exception of Allie's dad.  If this level of innuendo appeared in a male-penned book it would be considered juvenile, and in the interest of sexual equality, I'm willing to call it that here too.

But there were some elements I did like.  Huff deserves some credit for crafting a book composed of a bunch of really strong female protagonists.  Every Gale woman is presented as the sort you would not want to cross, and while that indulges in its own stereotypes (the ball-breaking woman and so forth), it mostly affirms one of the better tropes of the urban fantasy genre: the empowered, kick-ass woman.  This is no Twilight; while the girl may be occasionally fixated on the boy, that fixation doesn't stop her from going out and doing what needs to be done rather than laying about moping.  And Huff also gets points for the localization.  While I never again need to hear anyone say about Calgary that "things are happening here," she clearly knows the city, and that comes out in a series of Canadian references and references more local.  Location is important in urban fantasy, as the title implies.  And while there's nothing in the story that makes it essential to base it in Calgary (basically, anywhere sufficiently far enough away from Ontario and the main family would do), there is enough that places it there to make it seem more than just an afterthought.  Finally, I liked the notion of family that pervades the novel.  Allie has this huge extended family of aunts and cousins, and the attachment of family and what it means in a person's life is essentially the theme of the book, if it can be said to have a theme at all.  As someone who basically only sees his family at Christmas, I approve of that, and envy it, a bit.  Granted, my family skews away from the incestuous side, though.  We're not that close.

The other big detractor of the book, however, is the pacing.  Despite the possible destruction of Calgary, there does not seem to be a lot at stake here, as there's never any doubt that the good guys--girls--will see things through.  Likewise, there's never really any doubt that Allie will wind up with her man of choice.  And the characters don't seem particularly interested either.  Sure, Calgary may end up a smoldering ruin, but first--there's a dinner date to be had.  And yes, Grandmother may say she's dead, but they'll believe it when they see it.  Things move along at a very slow pace, and the usual third act split between the hero and heroine seems particularly perfunctory and contrived.  What that leaves you with is a lot of scenes where everyone stands around slinging witty banter.  And while that can work, if you (like me) got bored with the sexual references somewhere in the first fifty pages, there's not really all that much to keep you here.  Plus, while I'm complaining, there's a running joke about Graham being short: he is five foot ten.  Five foot ten.  As someone a half foot shorter than that, I did not find it particularly amusing.

I know that I'm not the target audience for this book.  But at the same time, I'd argue that top tier urban fantasy appeals to more than its target audience.  The writing's decent, if not stellar, the characters are fine, and I like how it draws on mythology without hitting you over the head with it.  But ultimately, there's just not enough other stuff going on here to keep my interest. 

Later days.

No comments: