Review: Legend Has It by Elliott James

Review: Legend Has It by Elliott JamesLegend Has It (Pax Arcana, #5) by Elliott James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Pax Arcana #5
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For John Charming, living the dream just became a nightmare.
Someone, somewhere, is reading a magic book that is reading them right back. Real life is becoming a fairytale: high school students are turning, quite literally, into zombies, subway workers into dwarves, drug addicts into vampires.
John Charming and his motley band of monster hunters are racing to find the villain of this story, following the yellow brick road through a not so wonderful wonderland. And if they can’t find Reader Zero before the book is closed, there won’t be a happily ever after again.

My Review:

The snark is strong with this one. Very strong. And John Charming needs all the help that he can get.

At this point in the story of John Charming and his “Scooby-gang” of Sig, Molly and Choo, they, and the world, are in pretty deep foo-foo. Which is where they do best. And sometimes worst.

The story follows almost directly from last year’s In Shining Armor. At the end of that book, John says that he and Sig are going back to pick up the rest of the gang, and that’s pretty much where we are now. John and the gang heading to New York to meet up with John’s former and possibly future gang, the Knights Templar, along with his semi-present gang, the werewolves of the Round Table.

Those Knights Templar really are the descendants of the original Knights Templar. The werewolves of the Round Table, on the other hand, adopted that name because it was cool and because it fit into their frequently mesalliance with the Templars. And probably because it pisses the Templars off just a bit.

Not that werewolves in general don’t make the Templars very, very twitchy. The Templars aren’t merely charged with, but are actually geas bound to protect the Pax Arcana, the magic (ironic that) that makes it so that us mundanes don’t see or remember magic. And for a very long time, the Templars were taught to believe that the mere existence of werewolves (and vampires, and pretty much anything else that was magic but wasn’t Templar) were an automatic violation of the Pax.

Which they mostly aren’t. Most werewolves, and vampires, and cunning folk (witches) and other magical types just want to live their lives without bothering anyone. They don’t want to be outed any more than the Templars do. But negotiating that particular change in outlook makes the Templars very, very twitchy indeed.

And that’s where John Charming came in. John is a Templar. And he’s also a werewolf. The fact that he didn’t self-combust the minute he discovered those two supposedly contradictory identities has forced, often at swordpoint, the Templars to do a bit of re-thinking. Hence the very shaky alliance between the Templars and the werewolves.

What was discovered in In Shining Armor was that there is a group very much in opposition to the Templars, and that the opposition, the School of Night, had done an excellent job of infiltrating the Templars over the past 500 years. The mission of the School of Night is bring down the Pax Arcana, by any means necessary, to let magic loose in the world again.

And the Templars are bound to oppose the tearing down of the Pax by any means necessary, no matter how vile those means might be. Even to the point of nukes in New York City. They may not want to, but they may feel that they have to.

That’s what John Charming and his Scooby-gang are right smack in the middle of. Their job, and they’ve decided to accept it, is to bring down the School of Night before the Templars bring down Ragnarok. No matter what it takes. Or possibly who.

Escape Rating A-: If you’ve read the other books, this one is a humdinger, slam-dunk thrill-a-minute ride from the beginning to the end.

Let me say this upfront – the Pax Arcana series is one that is meant to be read from its beginning. Although the world starts out being very much like our own, as the series piles on, we see more and more of just how different it is – or rather just how much has been hidden from us by the Pax Arcana. The author makes a brave and hilarious attempt to get new readers into the action by opening with our hero John Charming in the midst of an imaginary interview with a very imaginary Barbara Walters. That intro does a good job of reminding series readers where last we left our heroes, but isn’t really a substitute for new readers actually reading at least most of the rest of the series.

So if you like really, really snarky urban fantasy, start with Charming.

As I’ve mentioned, John Charming definitely comes from the snarky end of urban fantasy. He reminds me a lot of Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files, but John’s attitude towards women in general is a bit more, I want to say enlightened but that isn’t quite right. John, unlike Harry or most heroes in urban fantasy, is managing to have a successful relationship with Sig the Valkyrie. And he’s less of a hound and more of a good man, if only because Sig can perforate him with her spear when he screws things up. He’s learning, and it makes him more sympathetic.

Like other urban fantasy heroes, including Harry Dresden, Atticus Finch of the Iron Druid Chronicles, and John Taylor from the Nightside, the book is literally his story. It’s told from the first-person, and we are inside John’s head. You do have to like his brand of snark to want to occupy that head for very long, but it’s generally a livable space. While he does use humor to lighten what are often grim situations, he is also funnier on the inside than even what comes out, and he says what he’s thinking, and often what we’re thinking too.

The thing in this story that causes all the fuss is an interesting one. It’s a book. An evil book. It’s one of those books from the Restricted Section in the library at Hogwarts (not literally, of course) that should be chained up because when you read it, it reads you. And it’s way more powerful than most people who read it. The School of Night is using it to let magical monsters loose in the world, test the responses of the Knights, and see if they can spread enough chaos to break the Pax. It’s a diabolical plan, from a very diabolical mind.

But the sheer amount of danger that John, his gang and the Templars are tipped into, while awesome and scary on so many levels, also brings out one of the inevitable twists of urban fantasy – that in order to keep the series interesting, the protagonist has to face and overcome more dangerous situations each outing, with bigger and badder villains, and hairier and scarier problems to solve. The hero becomes more powerful, and the villains get even more frightening and evil. The tone of the series gets darker the deeper you go. And so it proves with John Charming. Also Harry Dresden, John Taylor and every other urban fantasy series I’ve ever read.

I wonder where this one is going to end. But I certainly plan on hanging on to the ride. Possibly with my fingernails. And maybe my teeth.

Review: In Shining Armor by Elliott James

Review: In Shining Armor by Elliott JamesIn Shining Armor (Pax Arcana, #4) by Elliott James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Pax Arcana #4
Pages: 464
Published by Orbit on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This fairy godmother's got claws.
When someone kidnaps the last surviving descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, it's bad news. When the baby is the key to the tenuous alliance between a large werewolf pack and the knights, it's even worse news. They're at each other's throats before they've even begun to look for baby Constance.
But whoever kidnapped Constance didn't count on one thing: she's also the goddaughter of John Charming. Modern-day descendant of a long line of famous dragon slayers, witch finders, and wrong righters. John may not have any experience being a parent, but someone is about to find out that he can be one mean mother...
IN SHINING ARMOR is the fourth novel in a series which gives a new twist to the Prince Charming tale. The first three novels are Charming, Daring, & Fearless.

My Review:

Actually, John Charming is a knight in rather tarnished and bloodstained armor. It also seems to be covered in slime and shit all-too-frequently. But he’s still a knight, even if he is also a werewolf. And based on his adventures in his first three books, Charming, Daring and Fearless, that contradiction he embodies seems to be getting both more and less contradictory at the same time.

But the moral of this particular fairy tale (because the fae are always in the background in this series, somewhere, even if it’s fairly deep background) revolves around that tried and true old saw, “ Assume makes an ASS out of U and ME. Because everything that goes wrong in this story begins with John (and everyone else) making a very big assumption that turns out to be far from true.

Even professional paranoids, like the Knights Templar in general and John Charming in particular, occasionally can’t manage to be paranoid enough. And in this case it very nearly bites all of them, along with the werewolves, in their collective (and extremely well-muscled) asses.

At the end of Fearless, a very, very tenuous peace has finally broken out between the Knights Templar and the werewolves. It’s so tenuous because until very, very recently, the Knights’ first response to a werewolf was to kill it on sight as an automatic violation of the Pax Arcana that prevents us normals from finding out that there really is a whole lot of magic out there.

But most werewolves (and vampires, and even naga and gorgons) are just like everyone else, they want to live in peace, hold down a job, raise their kids and participate in the American dream. Or whatever the dream is wherever they happen to live. They have even less desire to reveal the magic in the world than the Knights do, because they know they’ll probably be first on the firing line when the mundanes bring out the contemporary equivalent of torches and pitchforks.

And the Knights have just realized (a very few of them, all at the top) that they are really only geas-bound to enforce the Pax, and that as long as any magical creatures don’t violate the Pax, there is no obligation whatsoever to hunt them down and kill them. And, of course, a lot of them don’t want to give up the status quo.

Human beings are still human, extra power, extra knowledge, extra whatever, or not. And some humans are still arseholes.

The literal embodiment of this tenuous peace is little baby Constance. She’s the last descendant of the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar. And she’s going to be a werewolf when she grows up. Just like John Charming, little Constance has a tiny foot in both worlds. And both the Knights and the werewolves have been pledged to protect her. She’s the hidden little darling of both camps.

Until someone nefarious and unknown decides to disrupt that detente for reasons that, while obviously nefarious, remain nebulous and hidden for most of the story. The (very bad) idea was to kidnap little Constance and make the werewolves look guilty and responsible. Detente instantly explodes, werewolves hide far away from the Knights and whatever the evildoer wants hidden.

But evil never seems to reckon on John Charming. And he intends to wreck a reckoning on them. Just as soon as he figures out who they are, what they want, and what’s the best way to kill them very, very dead.

If they don’t kill him first.

Escape Rating B+: I liked this, but saying I enjoyed it doesn’t feel quite right. There are a lot of points in the story where things are very, very dark, to that point where it feels like things are getting darker just before they turn completely black. Which doesn’t quite happen, but gets really, really close. And occasionally feels like it’s dragging its feet just a bit.

For anyone wondering about the baby being in danger through the book, it doesn’t work that way. Constance is the catalyst but not the point, and John rescues her fairly early on. It’s never really about the baby. It’s always about breaking up the tentative peace between the Knights and the werewolves, even if John can’t put his finger on why for nearly the entire book.

And the reader can’t either. The hidden motives remain hidden until the very end. The plot in this plot turns out to be incredibly convoluted, and unlike a mystery, in spite of the first person singular perspective the reader is not privy to everything that John Charming knows or does. In fact, he makes a habit of reaching his resolution and only then revealing all of the secret things he did to make it all work out in his favor. After they work. Sort of.

If he wasn’t one of the good guys, he’d be downright annoying. A fact which his partner reminds him of on frequent occasions. One of the great things about this book, and the series, is John’s relationship with his partner and lover, Sig. Who is a valkyrie, and therefore even more badass than John is, with powers (and problems) of her own. They balance each other out, support each other, protect each other, and sometimes drive each other crazy. It’s terrific to see an urban fantasy where the protagonist both manages to have a fairly successful and monogamous relationship, and where the woman is every bit the equal of the man. That mix still feels rare, and is always welcome.

But as straightforward as John’s and Sig’s relationship is, the plot (and counterplot, and counter-counterplot) in this one seems almost overly twisted. In the end, the reader is just along for the wild ride, without much ability to see the twists and turns or even process all the changes. There’s a LOT going on in this story. But once John and Sig and the Knights get to the final battle, it’s a race to see if the reader can turn the pages fast enough.

As someone who has read the entire series, I have to say that I really missed the gang that John and Sig created (or that grew around them) in the first three books. And I missed those people, and the feeling of family and friends that they developed. But even though In Shining Armor pulls them completely out of their trusted sphere, it is still very grounded in the world that has been created, to the point where I don’t think In Shining Armor is the best place for someone to start this series. The operation of the Knights Templar is very complicated, and seems to get more so all the time. So start with Charming.

But speaking of that group of familiar faces, I’m really looking forward to the next book, Legend Has It, so John and Sig can get back to their extremely motley band of monster hunters and do what they do best all together – try to out-snark each other while racing to eliminate the most (and worst) monsters they can find.