John Charming works in a bar. He’s an exiled member of the Knights Templar. He might also be a werewolf, but no one is sure.
The Pax Arcana series takes place in a world where magic exists and always has done. From vampires to Valkyries, monsters and supernatural beings have lived alongside mankind forever. As is so often the case with urban fantasy though, nobody knows.
Nobody knows because the Knights Templar are bound by a geas to keep magic from the eyes of mortals. They hunt down and kill those who break the “pax arcana” and threaten to draw attention to the mystical.
That leads us neatly on to Charming – he was a Templar, but the werewolf thing caused issues for the fanatical monster hunters, and so he is on the run. He still has the same compulsion to prevent paranormal spectacles, which is what involves him in the primary conflict of the book: a spear-wielding blonde walks into his bar, closely followed by an aggressive vampire. Charming comes out of retirement and hiding to help the blonde hunt down the undead.
It isn’t a particularly plot-driven book: scenes that you’d think would be key get sped over fast, and there’s a lot of background information on the world that isn’t truly required – unconventional, in these times where all the writing advice is that every sentence must advance the plot, but I’ve always preferred a fleshed-out world to an efficient one.
Instead, the focus is on the characters – a priest on sabbatical, a psychotic Russian psychic, a tech-savvy snakeman. Most of the book is focused on conversations and interactions more than heroism or combat. There’s a varied and unusual cast of them, and the book is much more interested in seeing how they relate to each other and deal with Charming’s half-monster presence.
When there is action in the narrative, it isn’t the expected kind – the scenes have the same tone as a military thriller, not a fantasy book. Weapons tend to be guns, and whilst the combat is detailed, it’s detailed in a guns-‘n’-ammo way, rather than a straining sinew and fabled blades one. I find that kind of combat a little hard to become fully engrossed in – my taste runs towards swords and death-defying feats.
The narration is first-person, quite dry and occasionally rather funny – I was particularly amused by some terribly punning chapter titles. John comes across as the typical wise-cracking protagonist, just a little softer – he genuinely does try, most of the time, to avoid and limit his involvement in events.
There is one thing that I really do like about Charming: the Knights Templar. Normally, urban fantasy presents humans as witless sheep, totally unaware and ineffective in the magical realm that marches alongside their own. It bugs me that so few series allow humans to take a real role without giving the specific characters unusual powers, at which point they aren’t really human anymore. I own numerous books with half-monster protagonists, or magically-gifted organisations. Sometimes, I just want normal humans to fight against the dark: it was good enough for Stoker.
Charming doesn’t quite fit that definition – he’s half-werewolf, with associated strength and speed. The other Templars though, are much closer to it: their geas makes them immune to mental magic, but grants them no extra abilities or power. It makes sense to me that, should vampires and werewolves (and bears, O my!) exist, then someone, at some point in history, would have fought back.
The Templars do that – using torturous training and incredible organisation, they are a power in the supernatural world, even if individually they are outclassed by their opponents. I find that I really like the idea of monster-hunting societies: there should be more of them in books.
Overall, Charming was enjoyable – not life-changing, but quite a pleasant way to pass the time. I rather like the variation on the theme it presents – humans actually having a viable stake in the supernatural warfare, a truly reluctant hero. Charming stacks up well against others in the genre – I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t already care for urban fantasy, but it is worth reading if the genre is to your tastes.
There is a second one out now, and a third one planned. Buy the first one here.
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