I almost passed up Charming: Pax Arcana, Book 1 shopping for Audible books and I’m glad that I took a chance.
Don’t let the cheezy chick-lit character name fool you. This urban fantasy romp has a main character who is the last in a long line of monster-hunters (all named Charming which is why they show up so often in fairy tales). That was clever enough, but writer Elliot James does a great job adapting mythologies from several continents and plops them believably in a small middle-American town.
The last time an urban fantasy surprised me this much was almost twenty years ago when Joss Whedon took the rights back from the farcical Buffy the Vampire Slayer film and made some seriously entertaining TV out of it. Charming has a great blend of noir, action, banter, and back-story. The diversity of characterization elevates it above more paint-by-numbers urban fantasy such as Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces and the mixture of perseverance and loyalty makes the story more endearing than Simon R. Green’s Nightside stories. It’s a noir tale, to be sure, and everyone has wounds and rough edges, but too many authors depict nothing but collections of miserable jerk-wads working each other over in the face of an even larger danger. Elliot James gives us people we can root for, and wounds we can sympathize for.
The plot seems to wander sometimes, but later parts of the story make what seemed like side tangents plot-relevant before too long into the tale. The action is a great blend of fantasy and realism. Technical and dramatic climaxes come right on schedule with good effect. It is rare to see characters with such long back-stories change significantly in the narrative without breaking verisimilitude, since 100-foot oak trees don’t typically have a lot of right angles in their trunk, and James impressed me with showing characters bending just enough, or if the dramatic changes happen they are the result of long-standing tensions and we just happen to see the tipping point on-screen.
Like many mainstream authors, James operates to the left of my world-view. Like the liberal authors I truly enjoy, James joins McMaster Bujold in having enough sympathy and understanding of other points of view that his works should be palatable on both sides of the increasingly-divided American political scene.
I have saved Charming‘s best quality for last: Elliot James is a master of voice. I don’t think there are any casually chosen words in the novel. That’s usually the case with more literary books (One for Sorrows is a prime example) but is more rare in genre fiction. Elliot James does the best job of raw banter and narrative voice that I have encountered since Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.
It has its flaws, and I could wish for some deeper ethical truth in it, but there is no mistaking the charm of Elliot James’ latest work. Don’t take my word for it! Read it yourself!