This review includes mild spoilers.
I bought this because I loved the idea of an urban fantasy starring a 60+ year old pacifist. At the start of this book, the eccentric and rich Marley Jacobs is holding a fundraiser at her house. Aloysius, her sleazy nephew, stops by and tries to convince her to give him a love potion so he can win back Jenny, his ex-girlfriend and Marley's current assistant. Marley has always found Aloysius to be tiresome, and now she's finally had enough. She forces him to see himself for who he really is. It seems like a change for the better, except she never sees him alive again.
Although she didn't particularly like Aloysius, Marley still wants to find out who killed him and why. For one thing, Jenny is being blamed for his murder, and Marley is convinced she didn't do it. For another, Marley is worried that her last words to Aloysius might have played a part in his death. With Albert, her nephew and Aloysius's half-brother, acting as her new assistant, she plans to figure out the truth and stop any more killings from happening in her city.
I'll start with the good. I'm really glad that a character like Marley exists. I can think of very few older female fantasy protagonists. Connolly only hinted at Marley's younger days, but I imagined her as being something like Buffy Summers, traditionally kick-butt and tough. Then things went really, really wrong, she was forced to rethink her entire way of life, and over the years she morphed into the Marley of this book. While her pacifism was sometimes frustrating, I admired her determination to never purposely hurt anyone. She didn't even bend this rule – there was no “by killing this one person, I can save thousands of lives” moment, even though there were certainly opportunities for it, and she wouldn't even let Albert kill or hurt anyone in her stead.
While Marley was nice, Marley and Albert together were even better. They had some fabulous dialogue. I loved watching Albert try to adjust to the idea that, even though he was an ex-soldier (his military career ended when his trigger finger was shot off), Marley honestly didn't want him to be her bodyguard or her muscle. She hired him primarily as her driver, her conversational companion, and her door opener, and that was it. The very first thing he had to learn, as Marley's assistant, was how to stand back, trust her, and let her do her thing. Although his fight-or-flight response was still in Afghanistan mode, he gradually got better at this.
Now for the bad. I hate to say this, but the story plodded a bit. The things that kept me reading were Marley and Albert's conversations and the occasional glimpses of how supernatural stuff worked in this world. I loved the part with the ghost, even though I wasn't fond of Marley's very broad definition of “ghost.” I also enjoyed the vampires, troll, and dragon (even though it was a little like something out of a Godzilla movie). The problem was that, after a while, I kept losing the thread of what Marley and Albert were trying to do. They'd visit one person, supernatural or otherwise, find out a little more about Aloysius's sleazy life, and then move on to the next person. There was no way to tell what was related to Aloysius's death and what wasn't, and Marley either played things close to her chest or didn't have much more of an idea about what she was doing than Albert did.
That leads me to Marley. I'm not sure what Connolly was trying to do with her. On the one hand, she clearly had tons of supernatural and magical knowledge, was acquainted with some amazing beings, and was so vastly wealthy that even her home burning down was more of an annoyance than anything. On the other hand, I was never sure whether her actions were prompted by her years of knowledge and experience, or whether she was just doing stuff because it felt right at the time. She'd do things like booby trap her own home or damage some random car, not because she had any evidence that her actions might be helpful, but because she just had a “feeling.” It got to the point where, in my mind, I read Marley's “feelings” as “authorial laziness,” and I hated them because I felt they robbed Marley of much of her potential awesomeness.
Then there were the other things that just didn't work. For example, there was the “moment” between Jenny and Albert that felt weirdly sudden (they'd literally just met, and Jenny was still twitchy over the possibility of accidentally running into Aloysius) and that never actually went anywhere. Then there was Scribe. Scribe was a terrible idea, and yet another pointless thing that could have been dropped from the story without hurting anything. I had the nagging suspicion that Scribe existed mostly to explain away any and all of the book's POV oddities.
The thing that really got me was the ending, in particular the last few sentences. It was like Connolly couldn't decide whether to end the book on a light note or a tragic one, so he decided to do both. I'm sure it was intended to be funny, but it just left me feeling angry. All I could think about was what would have to happen next. Either Marley would have to exist like that forever, or she'd have to wait for Albert to rescue her. Both options upset me, for different reasons.
I really, really liked certain aspects of this book, which was why it was so disappointing when others fell completely flat. I can still recommend this as being pleasantly outside the urban fantasy norm, but it could have been so much more amazing than it was. I'm still debating whether I want to try any of Connolly's other books.
I don't think there were more than a dozen typos, but they were all pretty distracting – usually missing words, or words that should have been taken out but weren't. In one instance, early on in the book, Marley was called “Marley Jacob” rather than “Marley Jacobs.” Also, I winced when Marley “plucked out a few locks” (200) of someone's hair. No. You can pluck a strand of hair, but you'll probably have to cut a lock of hair off, unless you plan on yanking out some of the person's scalp as well.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- xxxHOLiC (manga) by CLAMP - (There's also an anime based on the manga, but it's nowhere near as good.) Although Marley hired Albert as an assistant, at times he felt a bit like her apprentice. Those who liked that aspect of their relationship, along with Marley's mysteriousness, might want to give this series a try. I've written about the TV series and volume 12 of the manga.
- Equal Rites (book) by Terry Pratchett - Those who'd like more fantasy starring older women might want to give the witch-related books in Pratchett's Discworld series a try. This is a good place to start.
- Howl's Moving Castle (anime movie) - I know the movie includes an anti-war aspect. The movie is only loosely based on the book, and I can't remember if this is one of the things the movie added that wasn't originally in the book. Anyway, those who enjoyed the pacifist aspect of Connolly's book may want to check this out. There's an ongoing war happening in the background, and those wizards who participate in it literally become inhuman. I've written about this movie.
- Midnight Riot (book) by Ben Aaronovitch - This is more conventional urban fantasy, but it's another one in which an older person with great magical and supernatural experience acts as a mentor for a younger person with zero experience. In this case, both of those characters are men. I've written about this book.