Book Review: Charming by Elliott James
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of Pax Arcana
Expected Date of Publication: September 24, 2013
My thanks to Netgalley and Orbit Books for providing me with an e-ARC of Charming in exchange for an honest review. My first impression of this book — and keep in mind this was before I knew anything at all about it — was that it was going to be an urban fantasy targeted more towards female readers. I suppose it was the reference to “Prince Charming” that did it. And the cover image featured a tall dark and handsome young man wielding a shiny silver sword emerging from a background of predominantly light pastel teals and purples, the title rendered in pretty loopy scrollwork classical font.
Turns out, I was a little off-base. In actuality, found that Charming read more like an urban fantasy novel in the same vein as those in series starring male protagonists like The Dresden Files or the The Iron Druid Chronicles. More recently, I read Jim C. Hine’s Libriomancer which also came to mind when I read this. And what do all the leading men in these series have in common? They all have these kick-ass supernatural powers, possess a sense of humor that falls slightly on the geek-side, are all great at battling vampires and other forces of darkness that threaten the human populace, and always come to fights armed with plenty of witty pop culture references.
Which is just a rambling, roundabout way of me trying to point out that readers who enjoy the genre should also feel right at home with this book and its main character John Charming. Trained by the modern day version of the Knights Templar, John comes from a long line of monster hunters and was one of their best fighters. But a werewolf attack on his mother right before he was born had resulted in John becoming a new type of strange hybrid, and the day he manifested his symptoms was the day his own people turned on him, labeling him an abomination that must be destroyed.
Now John is on the run, hiding in rural Virginia with a new identity. He’s rented a home near the woods and has taken up a bartending job in a college town, hoping to stay under the radar. Everything’s copacetic, until two mysterious newcomers show up one night at the pub where John works, threatening the peaceful and quiet undercover life he has worked so long and so hard to maintain.
Like I said, if you love urban fantasy and especially the series I mentioned above, there’s a really good chance you’ll like this too. I think that’s one of the reasons I took so quickly to Charming and its characters, because reading it was like returning to a place that feels comfortable and familiar. The problem with this, however, is that it can always act as a double-edged sword. While on a certain level a lot of the urban fantasy series I read may share a lot of similar traits and elements, my favorites are always those that stand out amidst the rest somehow, very often setting themselves apart through a unique idea or memorable features, say, like an alternate history or an interesting magic system.
As such, one issue I have with Charming is that I don’t feel like it adds much to the genre. Many of the ideas I read here felt like the retreading old ground or that I’ve seen them elsewhere before. Somewhat related to this is also the sheer amount of info-dumping I noticed spread all throughout the novel. I usually give first-in-a-series books like this a pass on this since world-building from scratch is a tough but necessary evil, but I’ve seen other authors pull this off much more subtly. Of course, this also just might be an indication of me having read too damn much UF; I’m sure someone just diving into the genre reading this book through fresh eyes might have a totally different experience and opinion on this than me.
Anyway, every hero needs a team, and John Charming’s no different. As expected, we have the supporting cast here including a couple of your instantly recognizable archetypes (“the hot leader chick that everybody has a crush on”, “the genius techie guy with all the cool gadgets”, “the smarter-than-he-looks cop”, etc.) but on the whole I liked the diversity of characters. The ones that stood out for me are Parth the naga scientist that brings with him a refreshing take on South Asian mythology, and Dvornik the jealous boyfriend who despite his hideous personality has a pretty interesting dynamic with Sig, the aforementioned hot girl. I have to say this made the resulting Sig-Dvornik-John love triangle pretty interesting to read about, and this is coming from someone not usually keen on romantic drama bogging down my action in UF.
Character-wise, I think my one disappointment was actually with John himself, and more specifically, it was his “Prince Charming” background and angle of the book that I wish had been more overt or explored further. After all, Prince Charming is a prominent but often underdeveloped figure in many classic and beloved fairy tales, and he rarely gets top billing like this. The blurb for this book and some of the other publicity materials for it appear to play up this point, which is why I was surprised there was not more of a link between John Charming (and his ancestors) and the Prince Charming of legend and fable. It it weren’t for the family name, there wouldn’t have been much of a connection.
All in all, a fun read. I had some mild issues with the main character and wished that the plot, lore and world were a bit more inventive and unique, but on the whole I enjoyed this and would be interested in reading more of the series.