Allie Beckstrom is My Hero

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
Magical backlash
Magic strengthened by two people who complement each other
Different types of magic (life, death, blood, etc.)
Magical weapons
A sooper sekret organization devoted to hiding and controlling magic

 

What’s different:

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.

                             

iction and urban fantasy books are plentiful these days and a large portion of them are vapid. There are exceptions, of course, as with any genre, but on the whole, the works of Laurell K. Hamilton and Stephanie Meyers are representative of “teh stupid” that is paranormal fiction.

 

Shows such as Buffy, Charmed, and So Weird made common the kick-ass female main character in paranormal or urban fantasy and opened the door for this genre’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 and Nobles. So despite the stupidity of paranormal fiction’s lowest common denominator, its frequent strength is an empowerment of females. Well, except for Twilight, which reduces girls to 19th century passive, pining virgins awaiting their one true love. But let’s not belabor that point.

 

To confess, I have read everything Hamilton and Meyers have written to date — Meyers because my students are reading her; Hamilton out of a trainwreck sense of loyalty to her Anita Blake series because the early installments were interesting. Initially, the books were a rated R Buffy knock-off with a tough-as-nails lead character, but they have since degenerated to Mary Sue orgies with some miniscule plot development in between. Really miniscule. I have no acceptable explanation for why I read Hamilton’s purely trashy Merry Gentry series. None at all.

 

Still, within the genre there are some gems and I’m reading one right now that I find wonderfully creative. I cannot praise it enough. Devon Monk’s “Magic in the…whatever” series about Allie Beckstrom continues to charm me 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 three primary reasons why I like this series and one major reason why I like the latest book, Magic on the Storm. Probably the most significant reason is Monk’s exceptional magic system. Plus there’s the adorable Stone, Allie’s pet, who really deserves a point of his own.

 

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. At one glance, Allie is cliché — smart mouthed, acerbic, stubborn, with a little bit of unique magic in her back pocket that makes her different from everyone else in the world.

 

As you get to know her, you realize that the cliché is surface level only. Unlike the stereotypical heroine in urban/paranormal fantasies these days, Allie is not uberpowerful or uberattractive, she hasn’t figured everything out with her powers of superkeeness, 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 nor is she a complete loner. On the flip side, she’s quite resilient, self-sacrificing in using magic but not to the point of selflessness, 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, urban fiction genre. The Allie Beckstrom books have sex and romance, but not without warrant. Instead, it 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, Allie and Zayvion.

 

As an aside, Zayvion is 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. I guess that merits a separate reason, huh.

 

 

#3 Complex plot line

 

The plot is a twisty turny complication of “wheels within wheels,” which is my favorite type of story. I love intrigue, tangled threads of who’s doing what behind which scenes, and so on. Each book adds a complex layer to the narrative and the most recent one ends on a well-done cliffhanger that has me sooo frustrated. Some series have a “monster of the week” approach that is like a video game, where each book culminates in a battle with a boss monster and the only thing leading from one book to the next is the relationships, setting, and context. The Allie Beckstrom series is more complex than the “Big Bad,” in which there’s someone behind the scenes manipulating the monster of the week. (Hamilton is guilty of the Big Bad to an annoying degree.) 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 one of the most unique and creative I’ve run into.It does have the customary features but it has some significant differences.

 

Checklist of common features:

Accessible underground pools of magic

Magical backlash

Magic strengthened by two people who complement each other

Different types of magic (life, death, blood, etc.)

Magical weapons

A super sekret organization devoted to hiding and controlling magic

 

What’s different:

 

1. The backlash is unique. Backlash can be channeled with a disbursement spell so that the cost of magic can be offloaded to a “proxy.” Offloading to a proxy without permission is illegal but 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, colds, muscle aches, and the like.

 

Unlike other magic users, something about Allie makes her lose her short term memory when she uses magic. So she carries a journal to keep herself informed when she loses her memory. It’s a milder version of Memento. Memory loss makes her new relationship with Zay rather interesting.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. Its signature has smells and tastes, which makes sense if the main character is a Hound. The author does a lovely job of describing the various scents, tastes, colors, and tactile dimensions of magic use. Zayvion smells like cool mint and the enemy smells like burnt cherry. Monk doesn’t go on and on about this; she just weaves the descriptions into the natural flow of the narrative.

 

3. Magic works like super electricity, piped through the city with 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 hospitals and the police stations and it maintains small spells that people use to keep themselves and their surroundings attractive. It can be stored in generators or other types of 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, that’s two words. The book ends, of course, in an epic battle of good guys vs. bad guys throwing magic at each other for the fate of mankind and the superpowerness of all time. When I get to the end of a book where this happens, I usually skim the boring battle and the all too common deus ex machina wrap up, and skip right over to the takeaway. On the occasions I’ve found it necessary to read the big battle, I’m often lost with who is standing where, who is entering and exiting, who is dying or saving a life, and so forth. They battles read as a jumble of actions and intentions that I simply get confused and lose interest. Sort of the way I feel when I have to do math.

 

Monk provides a well-crafted concluding battle in Magic on the Storm. I could clearly see and follow what was going on in terms of blocking, a unique reading experience for me. The unclear parts of the battle were entirely purposeful and consistent with the twisty turny plot. The ending truly left me dangling.

 

So, in the end, Monk’s series completely grabbed me in book one and it’s now four for four. I’m tenacious about sticking to a series even if I don’t like it. This one has been a joy and the latest book is no exception.

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