Paranormal fiction and urban fantasy books are plentiful these days, but a large portion of them are vapid. Allie Beckstrom, the heroine in Devon Monk’s “Magic in the…” series, is a welcome contrast to the genre’s disappointingly passive Twilight female characters.
TV shows such as Buffy, Charmed, and So Weird made common the genre’s kick-ass female characters, and opened the door for urban paranormal’s expanding popularity. The burgeoning teen fiction/young adult market, born with the huge demographic hump of Gen Y, cemented gothy/vampy/werewolfy/witchy/faery stories as a permanent fixture at Barnes&Noble. Yet, as the genre boomed, its greatest strength declined in favor of the lowest common denominator. Buffy and the empowered female heroine became Bella Swan.
The works of Laurell K. Hamilton and Stephanie Meyers are representative of “teh stupid” that is paranormal fiction. To confess, I have read everything Hamilton and Meyers have written to date. My students are reading Meyers the way they once read Harry Potter. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series initially seemed like an R-rated Buffy knock-off, with a tough-as-nails lead character, but it has since degenerated to Mary Sue orgies with minuscule plot developments. I continue to read Anita Blake and now Merry Gentry, the purely trashy fae series, out of a train-wreck sense of loyalty and curiosity.
Still, the urban paranormal genre contains many gems, and Monk’s “Magic” is wonderfully creative and charming even after the fourth book. I’m anxiously waiting for the fifth book, due in November 2010. Aside from the requisite strong female main character, there are several other reasons why the series is fabulous, and why the latest book, Magic on the Storm, makes for a great read. Most significantly, Monk’s magical system is exceptional. Plus there’s the adorable Stone, Allie’s pet, who deserves a point of his own.
First, a brief summary: Allie Beckstrom is a “hound,” a magic-using freelance detective who literally sniffs out magical crimes. Allie’s father is a corporate sorcerer and inventor who discovered ways to marry magic and technology. Through his inventions, magic has become as commonplace as electricity, and society is highly dependent on its functioning. Allie is implicated in her father’s murder, which is connected to a tangle of secrets, alliances, and magical power. So, on with the spoiler-free list!
#1 The main character – This is a no brainer. Allie is cliché — smart mouthed, acerbic, and stubborn, with a little bit of unique magic in her back pocket that makes her slightly different from everyone else. As you get to know her, you realize that the cliché is surface. Unlike the stereotypical paranormal heroine, Allie is not uber-powerful or uber-attractive. She hasn’t figured everything out with her super-keen powers, she doesn’t have multiple romantic interests knocking down her door, she’s not especially confident, she’s not surrounded by a Buffy-esque Scooby Gang of steadfast teammates (or, not exactly), and neither is she a complete loner. On the flip side, she’s quite resilient, self-sacrificing without selflessness in using magic, and she proves her mettle without excessiveness. Mostly, she’s doing the best she can to protect her friends and loved ones, even if those people have questionable loyalties and uneasy relationships.
#2 Sex and romance – Let’s dispense with this quickly since sex and romance are hallmarks of the paranormal and urban fiction genre. The Allie Beckstrom books have sex and romance, but not without warrant. Instead, sex develops out of the characters and the plotline, unfolding nicely with just enough of a presence to enrich the relationship between the two main characters.. As an aside, Allie’s romantic interest is a person of color, and SF books with central characters who are people of color are very rare. SF author NK Jemison discusses this extensively on her site.
#3 Complex plot line – The plot is a twisty-turny complication of “wheels within wheels” intrigue and people doing things behind the scenes. Each book adds a complex layer to the narrative, and the most recent book ends on a well-done cliffhanger.. Some fantasy series have a “monster of the week” approach similar to a video game, where each book culminates in a battle with a boss monster, and the only thing leading from one story to the next is the relationships, setting, and context. In contrast, the Allie Beckstrom series has a complex meta-plot with more than the “Big Bad.” There’s someone behind the scenes manipulating the monster of the week. As one reviewer says about the series, we are currently in book four and Allie still doesn’t know what’s going on. Monk says she charted out the entire plot and it will take nine books to complete (yay! Five more to go!).
#4 The magical system – Monk’s magic system is unique and creative. It does have customary features, but with some significant differences.
Checklist of customary magical features:
Accessible underground pools of magic
Magic strengthened by two people who complement each other
Different types of magic (life, death, blood, etc.)
A sooper sekret organization devoted to hiding and controlling magic
1. Backlash can be offloaded to a “proxy.” Many people sell themselves in exchange for spells from the magic user. Generally, the magic user can control the form the backlash takes. Allie does not use proxies, and she sets disbursement spells for physical ailments such as headaches. Unlike other magic users, something about Allie makes her lose her short term memory, creating a milder version of the film Memento. Also, Allie carries magic inside her so that part of the backlash is a growing tattoo that decorates her body.
2. The magic is highly sensory in nature. Magical signatures have smells and tastes, hence the main character is a Hound. The author does a lovely job of weaving sensory language such as cool mint and burnt cherry into the narrative’s natural flow.
3. Magic works like electricity, piped through the city with the metal and glass technology that made Allie’s father rich. Monk’s description of this conduit system, like her description of magic’s sensory nature, is vivid. Magic runs the utilities, services, and glamors that keeps the city functioning. It is stored like gasoline or electricity in technology that Allie’s father made before his death (I don’t think this counts as a spoiler). Monk says that she envisioned magic as a natural resource, like oil or water, when she drafted the concept as a short story for an anthology on magic and business. The foundation of the book is what a world might look like where magic was plentiful but costly.
#5 Why I like Magic on the Storm (still spoiler free!) – One word: The ending. Ok, two words. The book ends, of course, in an epic battle for the fate of magic and mankind. Now, the final battle of most books can be excruciating and unwieldy. Typically, the reader cannot envision where the characters stand when hurling fireballs thither and yon; writers and editors often miss who is holding what, so that characters suddenly may sprout extra appendages. In contrast, in Magic on the Storm, Monk provides a well-crafted concluding battle. I could clearly see and follow what was going on in terms of blocking. The unclear parts of the battle were entirely purposeful and consistent with the twisty-turny plot. The conclusion purposefully truly left me questioning.
In the end, Monk’s series completely grabbed me in book one and it’s she’s four for four. I’m tenacious about sticking to a series even if I don’t like it. This series has been a joy all the way through, and the latest book is no exception.