On my Radar: Elliot James - Charming (Pax Arcana #1)

Reblogged from Khanh the Killjoy:
Charming - Elliott James
There are tens of thousands of people, all around you, maybe hundreds of thousands, who at some point have experienced something that they can’t explain. And these people are silent. They are ashamed. They are afraid. They are convinced that they are the only ones, and so they say nothing. That is the real reason the Pax Arcana is so powerful. Rationality is king, and your emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

This was a fast read, a well-explained but very traditional version of a paranormal world existing besides our own. The characters and their personalities are nothing complex, but the main character is funny and snarky without crossing the line into annoying territory, and his narrative voice made the book a lot of fun. This book doesn't break any mold, but it's still a good one.
John Charming looks like your average bartender...until a statuesque blonde and a vampire walks into his bar. I mean, "pub." We then learn about his Deep, Dark Secret. He is a rare breed, indeed. Half werewolf, half Knight Templar. Half monster, half dedicated to an order dedicated to eradicating such misbehaving monsters from the world. Let's face it, have you ever heard of a well-mannered werewolf when the moon comes around? Nuh uh. It's like a calorie-free chocolate bar. Theoretically perfect, but doesn't exist. Said statuesque blonde is Sig, a Valkyrie, a kick-ass woman in her own rights (with plenty of emotional and physical baggage). John gets reluctantly pulled into her oddball group of hangers-on; together they fight off the big, bad things that go bump in the night.

Well, not really. Just a group of rogue vampires, led by a 17-year old teenaged mastermind who "wears cheap perfume that smells like a peach barfed on a lilac." (As a fan of perfumery, I found that passage particularly amusing.)

Here's The Good, The Somewhat Bad, and The Bad. I honestly cannot title my list The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, because there's really nothing that stands out as being ugly in this book.

The good
The setting and world-building: Modern-day rural United States, with a paranormal twist. The setting is well-described, without being overly wordy, without being too far out of place for a book of this character, with a male narrator who is observant (he's trained to be), but doesn't feel overly effeminate in his scrunity (*cough* Ethan Wates). The paranormal aspect doesn't destroy any boundaries, it is a very traditional one. We have vampires, we have werewolves, we have geists, we have nagas. We have humans with skills beyond that of the ordinary, due to family inheritance, or due to religious beliefs.

What I love are the explanations. We get a clear history of myths, of beliefs, and how they came about. Ordinary myths, like that of vampires fearing mirrors, are given a historical background, and explained; the explanations are clear, succinct, and never feels textbook-y, or out of character with the narrator's voice.

That’s one of the things that sucks about magic: it moves molecules around; and when molecules move, electrons shift; and when electrons shift, the air becomes electromagnetically charged. This is why all of those reality shows about ghost hunters basically amount to a bunch of guys with science degrees getting excited while they talk about energy readings, and you’re just sitting there bored watching a TV screen fill up with fuzz and static before the cameras go off-line.

Some things are given a historical explanation, other things have a more scientific-based background, some myths regarding the paranormal are based on a basic human instinct. The paranormal aspects of the story are so well-written, and I truly enjoyed reading about them.

The writing & The narrative:

“I’m involved with somebody else.”
Of course she was. All the good Valkyries are taken.
“OK, but you maybe saved my life, and you’ve seen me naked,” I said. “In some countries we just got married. Can I at least know what name you go by?”

This book and the narrator's voice was a joy to read. The writing is, frankly, awesome. The narrator is disctinctly male, but not annoyingly so. I have to admit that I have a problem with male narrators in paranormal fiction. More often than not, they come off as either

a) so downtrodden as to make doormats ashamed of sharing their name
b) woefully emo, with a hipster-like pretentiousness that screams Holden Caulfield-wannabe
c) an asshat

I hereby declare John Charming to be one of the 2 (ok, technically, it's 1.75) male narrators in a paranormal whose narrative I actually loved. He is awesome. John is hilariously witty, he is snarky at times, without ever crossing the line into the territory where I wanted to take one of his own wisecracking jokes and shove it up his ass. John, for me, is my male equivalent of Georgina Kincaid, of Succubus Blues fame. Whatever there is wrong about this book, the writing and the spectacular narrative are not among its faults.

Fine, I admit that I'm a little juvenile and a little frat-boy-ish when it comes to humor, but guys, this book was hilarious.

The woman set Sig’s chocolate orgy out in front of her and deposited my steak on the table.
“Y’all must work out,” the waitress observed a little sourly. She apparently did not.
“I’m going to throw this up later,” Sig said expressionlessly.
“I have a tapeworm,” I said cheerfully.

Between John and Sig (buxom blonde Valkyrie)'s sexual-tension-laden banter, the whole book just flew by for me.

The Somewhat Bad
Main Character Building: I do like the characters, they're wonderfully written, but they could use a little more complexity and development. We are given an explanation into John's character (well, no shit, he's narrating the book in first-person POV), but I never feel like his despair, his existentialist suffering, was real. I laughed with him more than I cried with him. John's debacle and internal conflict between his wolf-self and his templar self, and his struggle with fulfilling his geas (or quest, to put it simply) was well-explained, but it just lacked a certain something that would make me empathize with him. I loved his personality, I like that he is respectful, I like that he admits his feelings, I like that he gives Sig her personal space when he asks for it, I like his determination; John is the perfect gentleman, he truly is a Prince Charming, if this were a fairy tale. But as a human, as a believable character, he leaves much to be desired.

Sig was pretty kick-ass, as one would expect of a Valkyrie. She is beautiful, but she can seriously defend herself. She takes no bullshit. She has her flaws, and I loved her at first, but man...eventually she started grating on my nerves, and I know why.

Despite the fact that Sig is not the main character...she is kind of a Mary Sue. She is too fucking perfect. A buxom, 6 foot tall blonde, descended from Nordic mythology, with serious fighting skills (and an admirable set of tits). She can put away impossible amounts of food without gaining weight. Men fall for her left and right. She's got a sad past...etc. Yes, her flaws are there, her past is mentioned, but the development of her character beyond her perfection is too brief to make an impression.

Her wishy-washyness regarding romance and her unwavering loyalty to someone who is clearly wrong eventually got the better of me. I fell for Sig as much as John did, when we first met her. Unlike John, my good impression of her did not last.

The Side Characters: Cute, but way too kitschy to be believable. We have a large, intimidating black man, with the terrifying name of Choo. We have Molly, small, cute, chubby woman who plays holiday music all the time and dresses like she's in the middle of Winter Wonderland because it makes her happy. We have the paunchy, ill-mannered, wisecracking cop. We have the surly Eastern European dudes who can barely grunt out a few words of English and who prefers to communicate with their fist and their sniper rifles. We have the Slavic boyfriend who is perpetually grumpy and inexplicably rude. We have the Indian Tech Guy.

It gets a little too clichéd at times. I mean, I enjoyed their characters...but I would have appreciated some originality. Really? Why do all the grumpy guys have to be Eastern European. It's just too predictable.

The Bad
...And...here we go. I'll give you 2 guesses.

That's right!
Insta-Love: People, people, these are fucking ADULTS we're talking about. Reasonable adults with extended lifespans (remember, John has been alive for almost a century) SHOULD NOT FALL IN LOVE THIS QUICKLY. And in the middle of a huge mess of an investigation, no less. I'm glad Sig pointed out the ridiculousness of it, but John, get your head together, man!

The Love Triangle: Or rather, the love square. Because it seems like every guy (and a few girls) in this book just adoooooooooores Sig. But geez, there's so much conflict between Sig's suitor and current boyfriend. The two guys act like two little kids fighting over a toy they both want. The macho tension practically oozed from the page. I half expected either of them to pee on Sig's leg to mark their territory at various points during the book.

Overall: recommended, for a fun, fast, lighthearted paranormal fantasy with a great narrator.