Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus (Adventures of Owl #1), by Kristi Charish

Owl and the Japanese CircusAlix, (un)popularly known as Owl, used to be an archaeology student. After getting kicked out of her PhD programme, she turned antiquities thief. It would have been a lucrative gig, had it not brought her into contact with the wrong kinds of supernatural (though as far as Owl’s concerned, any kind is the wrong kind); now, with vampires chasing her ever further from her home and wealth, she’s reduced to living out of a Winnebago, running on cheap junk food and wifi for her gaming addiction. Her luck looks set to change when the proprietor of the Japanese Circus casino in Las Vegas offers her a job retrieving an artifact for him, and agrees to solve her vampire problem for her. Of course, the proprietor is a red dragon, and if she lets him down, vampires might be the least of her problems…

The main thing that drew me to this book is the ‘Indiana Jane’ angle. Books that marry the trappings of urban fantasy with the detective novel are a dime a dozen, but noir and pulp fiction are like two sides of the same coin, and it’s refreshing to see an urban fantasy author tackle the genre from a different angle. On the whole, the novel does a good job of balancing the adventures at archaeological sites with the city settings necessary to provide the urban flavour; the scenes at the Japanese Circus, however, ran a little long.

Despite her unusual calling, Owl is the sort of generic plucky twenty-something who are also a dime a dozen in these types of novels, more a bundle of tics and snark than a character with any depth. And man, did some of those tics get repetitive. If she popped one more can of Corona, I’d have wanted to drown her in it. In a genre where many of these characters are profoundly annoying, however, she is blandly inoffensive and sometimes quite humorous.

One of the things about Owl which was kind of presented as a defining quality at the beginning of the book, but got short shrift as the story progressed, was her supposed gaming habit. It was made to sound like a full-blown addiction, and her primary social substitute, and I thought that was a really interesting quality to give to a main character because it’s just such a normal, relatable thing for people in urban fantasy’s target audience, or at least a certain subset of it. As someone who spent part of her twenties on a 100 hour/week Guild Wars habit, and nearly did the same with World of Warcraft, I would have enjoyed seeing how Owl balanced that side of her life and how her gaming world and her supernatural world could have leaked into each other, but there’s only a bit of that. Mostly it just seems to fit too conveniently around her other stuff going on. Also, the game she plays sounds like a theme park MMO written about by someone who never played one, which to a reader very familiar with the genre feels a bit cringe-inducing, like being a teenager and watching someone over thirty trying to talk your language. I don’t know if the author has played MMOs, and maybe she has, but if so it doesn’t come across the way that, say, Felicia Day’s familiarity with them infuses her work on The Guild.

The supporting cast are a bit more colourful than Owl herself. I was doubtful about the obligatory love interest when he was first introduced, but I actually ended up quite liking both him, and them together. It’s neither insta-love nor an irritatingly slow burn, they feel like two people who are awkward about relationships but do genuinely like each other. There’s good banter here, but also warmth. He’s not an overly cocky alpha male; he treats Owl as competent, and when he gets exasperated with her, it’s understandable — she is pretty exasperating. There’s a little bit too much one-sided rescuing going on, and I’d appreciate it if in the second book she gets a few opportunities to pull his ass out of the fire, but I wouldn’t say that in any of them she is damselled. Most importantly, the romance doesn’t overshadow the rest of the book, and for the recluse she appears to be at the beginning of the novel, her friendships get a fair bit of page count — probably more so than many UF protagonists who theoretically have social lives. I like that her best friend is allowed to get annoyed with her over the imbalance of give and take in their relationship, but still has her back.

I also liked that the book goes beyond the usual roll call of supernaturals, and included some things that were both interesting and genuinely unusual. I mean, there’s a dragon, obviously, and if you can include dragons in your urban fantasy story without it feeling hokey then you have my thumbs-up, but even more flavourful were Oricho, and the naga, and the creepy corpse-eating nymphs. (Speaking of which, I have played enough video games that I was yelling ‘NAGA!’ when it was taking Owl too long to catch on. Well, I was thinking it very loudly, anyway. Come on woman, you’re supposed to be a game addict too.)

One thing that really didn’t work for me was her feline sidekick. I don’t like to hate on a cat. I’m a cat person. I’m actively trying to turn into the crazy cat lady over here, but people won’t let me. However, this was not a cat in any way recognisable to me. It couldn’t have been less catlike if it ran around barking. I wouldn’t have minded if the cat was obviously meant to be a bit Other, if it was a talking cat or a magical cat familiar or something, but other than being toxic to vampires it’s presented as really just a cat. And she lugs it around everywhere in a carrier like it’s a handbag, with no apparent difficulty, which kept taking me out of the story. Have you ever tried going places with a cat? The noises range from pitiful to making people think you’re killing it because surely nothing could generate those sounds unless it was being murdered. This is not conducive to swanning around an airport or a night club with one like Owl does. Apparently the author based it on her own cat. I’m… I’m not sure that what she has is a cat.

Despite the fact that it’s forced me to break some kind of record for how many times I can fit the word ‘cat’ into one paragraph, I enjoyed the book’s pluses more than I disliked its minuses, and I’m pleased to hear that the second volume in the series is already available. A lot of urban fantasy series start off a bit rough, and this is a better start than that enjoyed by many I’ve come to love, so fingers crossed that Owl and her story will grow from here.

3 stars

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