Katharine Kerr’s License to Ensorcell was an uneven but unique entry into the urban fantasy subgenre. It began as an interesting paranormal whodunit with some annoying acronyms, then took a sharp turn and became a story of alternate universes (also known here as deviant world levels). The addition of the alternate-universe material made License to Ensorcell more original than many of its peers and introduced a poignant subplot involving the heroine’s teenage brother, but also made the mystery make less sense. When I finished, though, I was certain that the Nola O’Grady series had a lot of potential. Water to Burn, the second installment in the series, expands upon the characters and concepts introduced in the first book, and lives up to the aforementioned potential.
Again we have a murder mystery — and this time, the murder weapon is the Pacific Ocean. “Rogue waves” have been hitting the coast, and several people have died. Nola learns that this is related both to the coven she investigated in book one and to some shady business that her brother-in-law has gotten involved in.
Meanwhile, the deviant world level is playing a larger role in Nola’s life. Her brother Michael decides he needs to rescue his girlfriend, who is a prostitute there. Then, in a touching series of scenes, Nola and Ari learn more about the UFO-obsessed rabbi who ran the kibbutz where Ari grew up, and about the long-ago disappearance of Nola’s father. The alternate universe concept introduced in License to Ensorcell comes to fruition here in a major way, and I can tell there are more great things to come on this front.
Another meanwhile: Nola and Ari are examining their relationship and trying to figure out whether they’re in it for the long haul. This involves a ton of fighting, and it’s sometimes exhausting, as it’s not witty banter but deep (and often hurtful) hashing out of big philosophical differences. Yet it leaves me with more hope for them at the end, because if they can disagree this much and still want to stay together, I think they may well have what it takes! They’re also both wrestling with Nola’s eating disorder. After book one, I was worried this was going to be dealt with in a flippant way, but thankfully it’s not.
I had mixed feelings about License to Ensorcell, but it piqued my curiosity. Water to Burn is a better book and has cemented my interest in the series. Nola O’Grady has a creative take on the supernatural, intriguing world-building, a loud and quirky family, and a down-to-earth, sparkle-free type of romance. (But I must confess that I still skim over the acronyms.)