‘Owl and the Japanese Circus’ by Kristi Charish

Owl coverReviewed by Chadwick Ginther

Vancouver scientist Kristi Charish is an author on the rise, with two series currently under contract with publishers. Her debut fantasy novel, Owl and the Japanese Circus, marks a welcome addition to Canadian fantasy.

Ex-archaeology grad student turned antiquities thief Alix Hiboux, better known to her clients and the world-at-large as Owl, is famous in supernatural circles—“bathing a vampire in sunlight during an excavation has consequences.” This fame is why Owl has a strict policy concerning her jobs. “No magic, no monsters, no supernatural clients. Ever.” Unfortunately for her, and luckily for the urban fantasy reader, the supernatural world has little care for Owl’s policies.

Mr. Kurosawa, a dragon who owns the Japanese Circus Casino in Las Vegas, makes Owl an offer she can’t refuse: he’ll get rid of the revenge-seeking vampires pursuing her, if she retrieves an artifact for him. The only catch is: the scroll he seeks was stolen three thousand years ago. Owl’s predicament personifies “out of the frying pan into the fire,” especially since dragons are known for eating thieves, but as Owl quips, she would “rather be eaten by a dragon than chased down by vampires. For one, the dragon didn’t have a grudge.”

Neither snark nor baggage are unique qualities in an urban fantasy protagonist, but what is far rarer is the completely human heroine. Owl is no “chosen one,” she is not a witch or demon, and she shows no signs of becoming one. In making this decision, Charish has immediately upped the stakes and tension; Owl has nothing to rely on but her friends and her—at times dubious—decision making.

Owl feels like a very Canadian heroine. For instance, she never carries a gun. In Owl’s experience, “a gun is predictable—you point and shoot. Not having a gun means I have to think outside the box, and I’ve surprised and escaped more tight situations that way than I can count.” Charish portrays Owl’s philosophy in many ways, always showing her to be resourceful, clever, even down to how she chooses her aliases: “No one is going to stop Charity Greenwoods at a security checkpoint, at the airport or at a middle-security dig site.” The reader believes that Owl could’ve managed to survive living off the grid as she dodges vampires.

Owl can be thoughtless, but the voice with which Charish imbues the character is also engaging and real. There are consequences for her behaviour; Owl alienates new and old friends and turns allies into enemies with ease. This quirk also manages to keep the novel’s tension stretched taut even in the moments where physical danger isn’t looming.

Owl and the Japanese Circus has an adventure serial vibe. With a wise-cracking down-on-her-luck protagonist, who also happens to be an archaeologist by trade, this is no accident. In true Indiana Jones style, Charish has Owl do some globe hopping, taking the story from Las Vegas to Tokyo, to Bali, to San Francisco, before returning to Las Vegas for the climax. The novel’s fun banter and Owl’s monologue that pays homage to the novel’s obvious movie progenitor adds to the fortune and glory tone. “In the words of a famous archaeologist, ‘I hate snakes.’”

Charish peppers the novel’s early pages with world-building and Owl’s history, while ably keeping the reader turning pages, although at times, these reveals feel a little too stingy. There is a hidden history of the world of magic that Charish only begins to reveal in Owl and the Japanese Circus. The International Archaeology Association is an intriguing bit of that history, especially their desire to “keep those pesky bits of supernatural proof out of the public’s delicate hands.” The IAA is one of the elements of Owl’s world that I would definitely wish to see more of. Fortunately, Owl has more adventures on the horizon.

Many of Charish’s world-building touches are as ingenious as they should be obvious. Of course Las Vegas is perfect for dragons. “No shortage of thieves with “dragon food” stamped on their foreheads in Vegas.” Owl uses her cat, Captain, to spot Vampires. Egyptian Mau cats were bred for this purpose in Charish’s world, as their saliva is toxic to the bloodsuckers. This detail is a neat play on the Egyptian belief of cats as guardians of the underworld.

Charish tweaks the vampire concept, while keeping her monsters recognizable enough to play off reader expectations. “Whenever people think vampire, they think of some superstrong, enigmatic, romantic, gorgeous monster that drinks blood and only wants to fall madly and tragically in love with the first pretty high school girl who swoons their way.” However, in Owl’s reality, Vampires are “little more than glorified thugs that drink blood and excrete that lily of the valley narcotic-like pheromone… a potent aromatic that hits you with a euphoria akin to heroin and weakens you everywhere so you can’t lift a finger to resist.” She also likens her vampires to cockroaches of the supernatural realm, which constitutes an interesting metacommentary on the creature’s prevalence in the urban fantasy genre.

In addition to her vampires, Charish’s unique take on monster taxonomy and scientific dressing of supernatural powers evokes Seanan McGuire’s excellent Incryptid series. It is also welcome to see some fresh monstrous faces, like nagas, Japanese radish demons, and Balinese luck demons, amongst the more commonly seen vampires and dragons.

Owl and the Japanese Circus is a novel full of betrayals, reversals, and adventure. This is a fun, and fantastic (in the best sense of the word) debut. The strength and potential success of any series fiction lies in a protagonist that readers will want to follow, not just for a single book, but for a potentially unlimited number of adventures. And Owl shows every sign of being able to sustain a series. Charish has created a heroine that is not likely to be forgotten, nor will her fun tips from an expert thief… er… archaeologist. “Why run? Always good policy to save time when you can; never know when you’ll need it later.”

Run, don’t walk, for your chance to explore a wonderful new voice in fantasy.

Simon & Schuster | 432 pages | $22.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1476794990

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