Advance Book Review:
Charming by Elliott James
Book 1 of the Pax Arcana
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
“I know John Charming is an unfortunate name.
Believe me, I’ve heard them all. No, I’ve never been turned into a frog. No, I haven’t slain many dragons lately. How could I? They’ve been hibernating close to the Earth’s core for over a thousand years. No, I don’t have any unusual shoe fetishes, glass slipper or otherwise. No my kisses won’t bring women out of any comas, though I hope they might perk them up a little.
But make no mistake: the reason there are so many stories about “prince” Charming is that there was never one man – the Charmings were an entire family line standing between humanity and all others for generation after generation, and in the old days it was common to give any monster killer in a story royal status. That is a heavy burden, but I carried my name proudly for as long as I was able. And I am still that man. No matter what else is in my DNA, no matter what my old order says, no matter what titles have been stripped from me or how long I am force to run and hide…I am still that man.
– Excerpt on page 3 of Charming, or also known as the-first-sign-I-was-falling-in-love-with-John-Charming,-and-Elliott-James’-narrative-voice.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking this is paranormal romance. Charming by Elliott James is an urban fantasy adventure with a hardcore main character, plenty of action, and a fun James-Bond-esque romantic subplot. John Charming is a fugitive, hiding from his family of secret society monster hunters and trying to keep a low profile working at a local bar when a leggy blond walks into his bar, smelling like something non-human and followed by a hungry vampire. Suddenly, John is forced to stay in town to investigate a series of murders, and way too many people know his real name.
John Charming’s witty narrative voice reminds me of all my favorite male detective leads (think Harry Dresden, Jack Winter…) while putting his own, unique stamp on the page. More that that, It blows my mind when a story convinces me that its protagonist is old. I can count the number of so-called looking-like-they’re-in-their-twenties immortals in Urban Fantasy who actually come across as “immortal” on the fingers of one hand – and Elliott James pulls it off in John Charming. It doesn’t hurt that John has a tragic, tortured past and plenty of reasons to angst (in a fun-to-read way) over his demons.
The romance is lightly woven into the book, even as its integral to the final plot implosion at the end of the novel. You don’t get a lot of it, but it’s pretty darn great to see how Elliot James handles the romantic elements between Sig and Charming, and each scene sticks out – for those of you reading or those who will-have-read the book when you see this review, isn’t the chili bowl scene the best? It’s dramatic without being melodramatic, and in this genre, that’s a breath of fresh air.
And then the world-building, oh the world-building. It’s enough to make me fall in love the book all over again. Amidst the usual cast of oblivious humans, murderous vampires, and grim-eyed monster-hunters, you get the backdrop of an ancient elven eugenics program, secret societies of knights bound against their will to police the supernatural, and creatures from all sorts of cultures from around the world. I loved it.
Charming takes its time laying out the details and rules of this world, but I don’t begrudge a single minute spent on it, thanks to the protagonist badass attitude and delightfully sarcastic voice. Mileage may vary, though. From my quick glance at the chatter on goodreads, it looks like the battle lines for the stars are drawn over whether there’s too much worlddumping, or just that perfect, delicious amount.
You might also have noticed that Kevin Hearne, author of a series about an immortal druid on the run from pissed off Celtic deities, did the blurb on the cover. And if you’re a fan of Hearne’s books, good news! You’ll immediately spot some of the surface parallels – a long-lived main character hunted by his own people as he tries to make his own, lone-wolf way in the world. And if you aren’t a fan of Hearne’s Iron Druid series, even better news! In Charming, James pulls off a lot of what I didn’t like in the Iron Druid (frenetic romance, youthful voice, rushed action) , and makes it work in the fugitive-hero storyline. The action and romance is a fun, rollicking ride without ever going off the rails into crazyland.
This debut novel just might be the next big voice of urban fantasy.
Review copy courtesy of Orbit Books/Hachette Book Group & Netgalley.
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