Fans of urban fantasy who are looking for something a little different, something that injects new life into the genre, will find a lot to enjoy with Owl and the Japanese Circus. On the surface, it contains all the elements we've come to expect - a feisty heroine, exotic locales, danger, and supernatural romance - but Kristi Charish puts a very human spin on it all that makes for a different sort of read.
As the story opens, we learn that Owl is a disgraced archaeological student, on the run from a contingent of Parisian vampires. A dig went bad, supernatural activity had to be covered up, and she was in the right place at the right time to take the blame. As a result, she's been reduced to a life of looting artifacts for the highest bidder, all while trying to stay off the radar. While so many of her genre contemporaries either take the supernatural for granted, or are supernaturally touched themselves, Owl has a massive blind spot for creatures of myth.
While she's just as headstrong and defiant as we've come to expect from women of the genre, she's also incredibly foolish, embarrassingly careless, and next-to-useless in a fight. Owl gets double-crossed, trapped, and captured on a regular basis, and get beaten up on a regular basis. She's a woman who doesn't believe in plans, and who doesn't have the patience to follow through on them anyway. It all makes for a read that's alternately exciting and exasperating, as we're left cringing again and again. Had she been any other heroine, I would have lambasted Charish for being so transparent with some of her clues (especially the online RPG angle in the latter half), but it's perfectly within Owl's character not to make the connections.
As for the supernaturals, I really like what we're offered here. Yes, there are vampires, but they're only one race of monsters. We also get beautiful nymphs (who are way too efficient at disposing of dead bodies), horrific skinwalkers (who, quite literally, wear your flesh as a disguise), succubi and incubi (who show up in the oddest places), snakes (who make for one of the best catacomb escape scenes I've read in years), ghosts (whose existence is both painful and heartbreaking), and a dragon (who has the single greatest lair/horde in contemporary fantasy).
It's a fast paced tale, full of snarky dialogue, and well-choreographed action scenes. We rarely get a moment to catch our breath, but there are plenty of moments of comic relief, often originating with Owl's inability to stop baiting those who can so easily destroy her. There is, of course, a romance involved (where things are never quite what they seem), along with the requisite sidekick (a clever best friend) and animal companion (an anti-vampire cat). While it is predictable in parts, and I constantly wanted to ask Owl how she could be so oblivious, I will say that the final reveal was both well done and genuinely surprising.
Clearly, we've just scratched the surface of Owl's career here, with plenty of seeds planted for future installments. Charish has managed to do something impressive with Owl and the Japanese Circus, reigniting my excitement for a genre that had become tiresome and repetitive. So long as Owl retains her feisty independence, the archaeology remains central to the story, and the supernatural angle is kept fresh and exciting, I'd definitely be interested in further adventures.
Paperback, 432 pages
Expected publication: January 13th 2015 by Simon & Schuster Canada