BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Meet John Charming, part of a long line of Templar Knights that hunt down things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately, one of those things is now John himself and he’s constantly running to keep one step ahead of those who wish him harm. Everything comes to a head when a beautiful blonde walks into his bar and turns his life upside down.
PROS: Interesting new world with original magic systems mixed deftly with folklore and fairy tales; good characters hold the story together; lots of black humor and pun-tastic chapter titles.
CONS: Hindered by muddled action sequences and dialog that sometimes misses the mark.
BOTTOM LINE: This first book in what will become a series has some stumbling blocks right out of the gate but is nonetheless a riveting story that left me anxious for more.
I was excited to read Charming and it didn’t disappoint. The story is of John Charming, Templar Knight turned werewolf, was an interesting and unique one. Throw in some vampires and you just can’t lose! John was raised as a Templar Knight until one faithful day when his luck changed and he became what he used to hunt. He’d been labeled an abomination even though his affliction was not his fault. In the world James has created, the Knights Templar are under onus (called a geas) to protect the carefully crafted balance of the Pax Arcana. The Pax prevents normal every day humans from realizing the level of supernatural beings around them. It’s what makes you doubt what you swear you saw out of the corner of your eye and what makes you laugh off the idea of vampires and werewolves as just science fiction. John now threatens the Pax the Knights have sworn to protect and he’s swiftly become their most wanted quarry.
We experience the story fully from John’s point of view. He’s an unreliable narrator, tormented and wary of his werewolf side but incredibly fun to listen to. His sense of humor is self-deprecating and deadpan. The other characters slowly come into focus as the story progresses. There is Sig, a blonde Valkyrie John meets at the beginning who saves his skin and convinces him to stick around and help her eradicate a den of vampires. There’s an insect exterminator turned Ghostbuster named Choo and a lesbian Episcopal priest named Molly who wears Christmas sweaters to psychological ward off all the crazy stuff she’s experienced. There’s even the urban fantasy prerequisite of an in-the-know police detective. John gets along fairly well with this strange group but finds an enemy in Dvornik, a grizzled Rasputin-esque seer. Dvornik hates everything about John, from his altered DNA to his Templar Knight upbringing. He’s also dating Sig, which causes even more tension when John realizes he wants to become more than just friends with her. Watching the animosity between John and Dvornik grow is like watching a flame travel down a length of wire to get to a barrel of explosives; you just know it’s going to end in bloodshed.
The characters carry the story forward at a quick pace. They all have fascinating pasts and motives that unravel organically as the story progresses. They work well together despite their differences and become a quirky yet effective team. Their main goal is tracking down an intelligent teen-aged vampire who is actively recruiting people and murdering others. Thankfully there are no unearthly beautiful vampires in this story. They’re smelly, sun-phobic creatures who can’t stand the touch of water and are stunningly vicious. They’re also technologically savvy, with the teen-aged vampire queen leading our merry group on a goose chase using burner cell phones and dead-end email addresses.
While the characters in Charming are one of the high points, there are unfortunately some low points as well. The action scenes, though exciting and bloody, were also muddled and sometimes confusing. Characters seemed to pull weapons out of thin air and left me wondering “wait, where did she get that giant axe?” or “where did that extra ammo come from?”. I found myself re-reading a few action scenes trying to find out where items came from or how some enemies seemed to multiply at random. The other aspect of the novel that didn’t seem to mesh completely was the dialog. Most of the dialog is well written and very funny but there are some places where it misses the mark entirely. There is one instance where James chose to write out the thick accent of a Louisiana vampire and it felt like I was suddenly reading Trainspotting. It knocked me completely out of the story and there were some words I could not decipher for love or money. Some of the dialog between John and Sig is a little stilted as well but it’s nothing truly terrible. None of these things detracted from my overall enjoyment of the story, they just threw me as I was reading and forced me to circle back on myself to make sure I understood what was happening or being said.
Overall, Charming is the promising start to a new urban fantasy series. It forges new ground in a genre where so much rehashing and idea recycling happens. I believe John Charming’s name will soon be right up there with Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Atticus O’Sullivan and Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer Isaac Vainio when discussing thrilling new male protagonists. Elliott James is an invigorating new voice in urban fantasy and I’m eager for more adventures with John Charming and his ragtag team.