Creatures of Charm and Hunger: A slow start ultimately pays off

Creatures of Charm and Hunger by Molly Tanzer science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCreatures of Charm and Hunger by Molly Tanzer science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCreatures of Charm and Hunger by Molly Tanzer

Creatures of Charm and Hunger (2020), the title of the third in Molly Tanzer’s THE DIABOLIST’S LIBRARY series, accurately describes the elemental beings with whom the human diabolists contract in order to do magic. It also accurately describes the two main characters, Miriam and Jane, and Jane’s Aunt Edith, an important secondary character.

These three books are not a trilogy in the conventional sense, since each takes place at a different point of history, with different characters. Creatures of Charm and Hunger follows Jane, Miriam, and Jane’s mother Nancy, who is the librarian for the diabolist library in Hampstead, Britain near the end of the second world war. Miriam was sent to live there when her parents were imprisoned by the Nazis in Europe. (In addition to being a diabolist, Miriam’s father was Jewish.) Both young women are approaching the time of the Test, when they are examined to see if they are suited to being diabolists. Jane and Miriam are very different personalities, and while they love each other, there is friction, just as there is friction between Nancy and her glamorous sister Edith who comes to administer the test. The results of the test open a rift between Miriam and Jane, but an even deeper fracture happens when Edith tells Miriam that her parents are suspected of being Nazi sympathizers.

For very different reasons, Jane and Miriam both embark on quests for forbidden magic, with results that are shocking and tragic. Meanwhile, both Edith and Miriam work to discover what really happened with Miriam’s parents.

The scenes in Nazi-occupied castles and laboratories are all thrilling and suspenseful. While Jane’s adventures are more domestic, they ultimately unleash a greater danger on the house and the library.

Creatures of Charm and Hunger by Molly Tanzer science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTanzer’s depiction of the uneasy contracts or Pacts between these demonic, elemental beings and some humans is pitch-perfect. No one really knows what a “demon” is or why it’s willing to contract with a human, but the power is undeniable. Like all power, it can be used for righteous or heroic ends, like trying to rescue prisoners from Nazis; for evil purposes (the Nazis have diabolists too); or even for venial, simple, even selfish ends that ultimately are neither good nor evil.

Jane, for instance, loves luxurious things, movie stars, and glamor, and in this she takes after her Aunt Edith. One of my favorite lines is when Jane suddenly figures out a problem in her spell-casting:

… As she was turning over, her sleep-blinking eyes saw the title of the book she’d fallen asleep reading — Ceremonial Practices of the Puritan Witches — and two thoughts about the problem of flight came together as eagerly as Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Some of the demons may have plans of their own, though, as we soon discover.

The sections when our characters attempt to outwit the Nazis are tense and exciting. Goings-on back home in Hampstead are less compelling and less convincing, and the plot requires both young women to overlook the fact that something is going horribly wrong close to home for quite a long time.

While I always enjoy Tanzer’s prose and her interesting take on human nature, I spent the first fifty pages feeling no real forward momentum. Except that I’d promised myself I’d review it, I didn’t feel any pressing need to keep reading. This might have been because I didn’t care for any of the characters at first. I’m glad I kept going, because both Jane and Miriam develop personal stakes that I cared about, and they were high. I’d recommend these books for a different look at magic, and magical contracts, one that is not sentimental or moralistic about wielding power, but doesn’t shy away from the consequences of doing so.

Published in April 2020. Two young witches, once inseparable, are set at odds by secrets and wildly dangerous magic. In the waning days of World War II, with Allied victory all but certain, desperate Nazi diabolists search for a demonic superweapon to turn the tide. A secluded castle somewhere in the south of Germany serves as a laboratory for experiments conducted upon human prisoners, experiments as vile as they are deadly. Across the English Channel, tucked into the sleepy Cumbrian countryside, lies the Library, the repository of occult knowledge for the Société des Éclairées, an international organization of diabolists. There, best friends Jane Blackwood and Miriam Cantor, tutored by the Société’s Librarian — and Jane’s mother — Nancy, prepare to undergo the Test that will determine their future as diabolists. When Miriam learns her missing parents are suspected of betraying the Société to the Nazis, she embarks on a quest to clear their names, a quest involving dangerous diabolic practices that will demand more of her than she can imagine. Meanwhile Jane, struggling with dark obsessions of her own, embraces a forbidden use of the Art that could put everyone she loves in danger. As their friendship buckles under the stress of too many secrets, Jane and Miriam will come face to face with unexpected truths that change everything they know about the war, the world, and most of all themselves. After all, some choices cannot be unmade — and a sacrifice made with the most noble intention might end up creating a monster.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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