License to Ensorcell: Unusual, not without issues

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Katharine Kerr License to EnsorcellLicense to Ensorcell by Katharine Kerr

Nola O’Grady is a psychic who works for a government agency that officially doesn’t exist. Her agency is called in when there’s a case involving the forces of Chaos – like the one that Israeli agent Ari Nathan is currently trying to solve for Interpol. Someone is murdering werewolves, and somehow traveling between the scenes of the crimes without being seen by any witnesses. Nola and Ari are thrown together on the case and soon learn that the victims all knew each other and that Nola’s late brother Patrick was murdered by the same culprit.

Katharine Kerr creates a host of interesting characters, starting with Nola’s eccentric (and psychic) Irish Catholic family. The setting is fun; Kerr makes great use of San Francisco landmarks such as the Portals of the Past, a columned doorway that is all that’s left of a house that burned during the 1906 earthquake. Throughout License to Ensorcell, the reader feels like he or she is right there in the city with the characters. The fantasy world-building is also interesting. I love plots that revolve around spaces that are subtly wrong in the way they’re laid out (see also M.L.N. Hanover’s Vicious Grace). It’s easy to believe, when feeling disoriented in such a place, that there is something uncanny going on.

The government aspect and Nola’s family combine to make an urban fantasy that feels simultaneously more bureaucratic and more cozy than most of its peers. Nola’s psychic abilities all have official acronyms, which can be hard to keep track of, but there is a glossary in the back – and truth be told, most of the time you can skim over the acronym and just say to yourself “she’s trying to get a psychic read on someone.” The family aspect is often funny and sometimes touching, as in a subplot involving Nola’s teenage brother Michael trying to discover what powers he has inherited.

The main mystery doesn’t work as well. Kerr overcomplicates her villain. The more he is unveiled, the less he makes sense to me. When I finally learned what his real agenda was, many of his actions seemed illogical. They would jeopardize his agenda, or at least add extra work to it.

In addition, License to Ensorcell takes a while to get off the ground. The early chapters bog down a bit in arguments between Nola and Ari. I can deal with bickering if it’s especially witty, but these arguments just made me cranky right along with the characters.

Kerr’s depiction of Nola’s eating disorder is problematic, too. In reality, the reasons someone develops anorexia are rarely as simple as wanting to be fashionably thin, and recovering from it takes more than having one’s hunky new boyfriend coax one into eating.

Consider giving License to Ensorcell a try if you’re looking for something unusual in urban fantasy. It’s not without issues, but with its interesting cast and world-building, it could be the start of a highly original series.

Nola O’Grady — (Began 2011) Publisher: Psychic Agent Nola O’Grady isn’t sure returning to San Francisco, and living near her unusual family, is a good idea. Her job, with a psychic agency so obscure even the CIA doesn’t know it exists, can be perilous, and she’s afraid of the relatives getting involved. Then the Agency saddles her with Israeli secret agent Ari Nathan, and she has a bigger problem on her hands, because tact and compromise are not Ari’s strong points. Their mission is to track down a serial killer obsessed with werewolves. He sees them everywhere and shoots whenever he thinks he has one in his sights. Ari assumes the man’s psychotic, but in truth he’s murdering actual werewolves. Nola should know. Her younger brother Pat, a lycanthrope, was the first victim. Can Nola’s psychic talents and Ari’s skill with guns keep them alive long enough to unravel the greater mystery behind the killings? Can they save the werewolves and the world while stopping Nola’s family from running headlong into danger?

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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