I was warned off from Thaumatology 101 before I started reading it. Reviews are rather mixed – some people think it’s a fun and flirty urban fantasy romp, and some people think it’s objectionable smut about unrealistic cardboard characters.
I thought the massively polarised reviews were fascinating. Normally there’s majority agreement on whether a book is urban fantasy or paranormal romance, and similar agreement on whether it is worth reading.
Ceridwyn Brent is a magical research assistant who can’t do magic. She’s also the heir to a wizard mansion, protected by burning tattoos and with a half-succubus for a housemate. She starts of her series with the kind of assests and confidants that it takes most urban fantasy protagonists at least a trilogy to acquire.
When an experiment goes wrong and fills the thaumatology lab with uncontrolled magical energy, Ceridwyn discovers that her already highly unusual life is about to get a lot more unusual. Suddenly she’s dealing with newly-awakened powers, wizard zombies, and succubus sexual politics.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Thaumatology 101 is extremely sexualised. Ceridwyn’s wardrobe consists almost entirely of lace teddies. Her succubus friend rarely wears anything at all. Every man (and every woman) is constantly attracted to the key characters, and even minor characters in traditionally romance-less roles spend all their time flirting with each other, both archly and obviously.
The closest parallel I can think of is the Carry On series. Thaumatology 101 takes place in a world with two important differences from reality: magic is real and everyone is obsessed with sex. The most fitting adjective is “bawdy”. It’s not erotica, it’s not smut, it’s simply hyper-sexualised in an endearingly innocent way.
The Carry On films are harmless, even puerile. Nothing explicit actually happens, it’s all just innuendo and buttons bursting and cameras cutting away at the last moment. Thaumatology 101 is very similar. For a book that is the literary equivalent of those birthday cards that the designers clearly would describe as “saucy”, it’s actually rather restrained.
There’s very little actual sex. lots of hinting at it, lots of fading to black or people smiling in a satisfied way as they re-enter the scene, but almost every other book in urban fantasy has far more direct description of the act. The few times that Thaumatology 101 does go into detail, it’s a little jarring, as though the author handed over control of the keyboard to their older brother who has been with like, three girls.
There is a plot, even quite a complex one. It’s not the focus though – mostly, the plot ticks over in the background, villains turning up at critical moments and discoveries slotting in whenever the main characters take time away from bed-hopping to concentrate on investigation. It’s a little more complicated than it needs to be to act as a framing device – people who read this for the plot will find the inter-personal interruptions annoying, and people who read it for the double entendres will get bored.
I don’t have any plans to read the next book. It’s not my kind of thing – I like my urban fantasy books to have characters with at least two-track minds. But I do think that Thaumatology 101 doesn’t deserve quite as much opprobrium as it has received. It has a place, if not at the forefront of its genre.
Urban fantasy has its Noir variant. There are urban fantasy books that focus on romance, and on action, and on the apocalypse. There’s even an urban fantasy heist series. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that there is room for a bawdy 1970s hospital variant. If what you are looking for from a book is urban fantasy filtered through the aesthetic of risqué postcards, then this series will be your favourite thing ever. If you aren’t looking for that, then don’t read it; it’s in a very specific niche.