Emma Wolf has written an absolutely delicious novel. If you’re in for a detective story but have had it with overweight guys in their middle-life crisis drifting from one elaborate sadistic serial killer to the next, here’s a real whodunit – and what! – for your pleasure. If you love fantasy and a good story, but silly unrealistic details bug you and ruin your reading experience, this will keep you enchanted and satisfied. If you miss Scott and Bailey; if you’re getting impatient with Aaronovitch to get on with his Rivers of London; if you know your Diana Wynne Jones backwards and wish she were here to write another one, this one is for you. Crime, suburban fantasy, legal defense – genies, sprites, shedim, baobhan sith: what a set of tags!
The story is told by the criminal defense attorney Madeleine Sands, practicing in the suburbs of Houston, deep Texas. Maddy Sands is thirty something, single, good at her job and a tough lawyer, but kindhearted and a stickler for legal or other kind of ethics. Maddy is no action heroine, even if she won’t shun danger to follow a lead, especially to help her client. It is deeply satisfying to have a woman protagonist whose main focus is always her job, who may have her likes and crushes and friends and possibly a lover, but who is not defined by her relations to them but by her own thoughts and actions and feelings. Maddy is a truly free spirit (though not one of the actual sprites of the story), however much she upholds the rules of legal procedure.
Maddy finds herself in the middle of a case involving a teen-age shedim/genie, wrongly accused by his malicious self-made “master”. She discovers that also a lot of her previous customers have been fae, sprites and baobhan siths and what will you, being passed between the fae as a lawyer than can be trusted by them, and begins to realize the “preternatural” (for we are not unnatural but part of the Nature, as a sprite terms it) surrounds her to an extent she struggles to believe. Like any real lawyer, she has several cases and a life of her own running simultaneously, though towards the end many threads get woven together and make a new whole. The book closely resembles the archetypical narrative where a bunch of unlikely companions come together to achieve an impossible goal – save the world, win the princess and half the realm, defeat the monster. I really cannot dwell too much on the actual events or characters in the book, for that would be spoiling – so many things that may look like irrelevant details reveal themselves to be essential elements of the story that unfolds chapter by chapter to finally reveal the whole picture.
Emma Wolf terms her book also “low fantasy”. I assume she is referring to the delightful mixture of the real and the fantastic, magic and the practice of law from the perspective of how it really happens. A lawyer herself, she has the inside knowledge of the practice of law to provide the realistic setting for the fantastical. And her fantastic elements are as diligently researched as her legal background elements. But realistic facts and fantastic beings are not enough to create a book that is what I can only define as can’t put down -good. Magic is an exact science, and reading this book I also started to see that magic resembles the law a lot: the basics are set and binding and unforgiving, but the freedom slips in through how you are able to apply the set rules to a case. A genie or a lawyer may not be allowed to lie, but when pushed to the limit, they can present the truth in a way that will make you think the lie and swallow it.
Emma Wolf has that magic touch that is a mark of a great storyteller, she makes her facts breath and her fantasy convince. I am much reminded of the inimitable way Diana Wynne Jones mingles magic with the everyday reality, though Wolf’s book is not an imitation of anybody else’s style but truly her own. Wolf’s characters are alive, intriguing, entertaining, infuriating, believable; her narrative lightens surroundings and buildings, character quirks and sudden delicious details of description: “assorted upper class snobbery in The Woodlands” “His use of fifty-cent words irritated me” “An older man with a beard that would have impressed ZZ Top answered the door” “We call ourselves Organized Union Resisting the Oppression of the Ways of Nature. Or ‘OUR OWN’ for short”. “Low fantasy” may be a classifying term, implying that the book is not set in a whole new universe created for the purpose, but is firmly anchored in this one we’re living in. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the fantasy is weak or diluted or an ornamental bling – it is the fundamental element of the mystery and its solution, not to mention defining quality of several characters in the book.
I’m sorry not to have many critical notions to present – there may be a residue of typos, and I’m left wondering what happened to Maddy Sand’s ethical qualms and principles (wink) – but my main complaint is that this book howls for sequels. It should be the first of a comfortably thick set of 4 – 5 volumes already on my bookshelves so that I can go on to the next after having put down this. Thank you Emma Wolf for the “Sealed Fate”, and I’ll be waiting for those other cases to follow!
(reviewed 2 days after purchase)