REVIEW: Charming (Pax Arcana #1)

Charming (Pax Arcana #1) by Elliot James

John Charming works at a bar in middle-of-nowhere Virginia because he’s a werewolf (well, part werewolf) on the run from the Knight’s Templar. The Knights are sworn to uphold the Pax Arcana and protect the monsters of the world from human discovery. (The world building of the Pax Arcana feels a bit familiar…hmm…) If this book would’ve been more about the Pax Arcana and awesome vampire hunts, it would’ve been awesome. Instead, it’s about John’s stupid love life, which is terrible and boring. Sig, a Valkyrie, walks into John’s bar to hunt a vampire, and the will they/won’t they starts almost immediately. It’s like this author was told urban fantasy was all about the angsty relationships and forgot that those only work if they’re a side-story or the ‘B plot’, and John’s relationship with Sig felt like the ‘A plot’ of this story.

I’m a bit disappointed John isn’t a real werewolf. Disreputable bartender? Check. Renegade Knights Templar? Also check. Werewolf? That’s a stretch. Don’t go into this expecting a shifter heavy book.

Didn’t care as much for the ‘old’ myth and modern technology blending. It felt forced instead of creative; it was more like the author wanting you to know how smart he was verses John authentically being presented as intelligent. The book was heavily self-referential and wanted to appear smart, but there were some stupid things it did to undermine the credibility of the story. When a story gets too referential–to the point where it’s mocking its own plot–it can mean there are serious problems in the story. Instead of being meta, it highlighted the things that already bothered me about this story.

Not thrilled with Sig. There’s way too much time devoted early in the book to how much she likes John and vice versa. I’m not feeling it. I mean, seriously, we could be getting a bloody vampire show down, and John and Cahill, the cop, are having these boring conversations about Sig and her love life. “I’ve known Sig for twenty-four hours…” is about right. Cahill is a creep, which makes John and Cahill’s scene about 100x worse and sufficiently awkward. This is only the first of many, endless awkward scenes between John and just about everyone in this story.

John’s personality: it will make or break this book. It’s the biggest positive, to me, but not as humorous as some might find it. John points out how half-assed his man-pain is, and it’s a meta instance of the character defending a weakness in the narrative. Meta is great when it’s actually humorous, but John’s tragic past never quite clicked with me. There’s all this teasing about the Knights, but he doesn’t actually fight them. They never directly come after him. That’s a shame because the Knights and the other elements of the world-building were much better than John and Sig’s story, which is the center piece of this novel. The vampire hive house was gory and fantastic. The ‘smart vampire’, Anne Marie, is the real mystery to this story. The twist ending didn’t work here and sunk what hope for the story I had. I spent this entire story hoping it would be awesome, but nope! The entire story is really about John’s love life, even up to the bitter freaking end.

Molly and Choo are too good for this story. So is Parth. Parth is also the best. This story is much better when it focuses on its action piece set-points. Some of John’s fighting feels like the fantasy equivalent of Bullet Time, but those scenes are still gripping. Anything is better than the soggy, white-bread relationship between Sig and John.

Maybe I’ll have to go into a full rant about special reasoning and map reading in fantasy soon, but another instance showed up here. I mean, have people used topo maps in the woods before? Here’s the full quote:

Last night I visualized a map of the area I was in like a man. And I knew exactly where I was on that map. Men can’t do that without landmarks. Wolves can’t do that. But I could.

First, you would’ve had landmarks. I get the point is that wolf-senses are heightened and that enables a better understanding of where one is, but this is illogical. The speed at which the information was processed is the key, I think, to this scene. But you, a normal human, do this type of special awareness all the time when you go ‘off trail.’ Yes, the key is landmarks, but there are lots of little tricks to knowing if you’re lost and how lost you are. Here’s an example: I hiked a ‘trail’ (I say this lightly) through a canyon system. It was mostly washed out, so there was a fair amount of knowing when to leave the wash, what side branch to take, and where we would get ‘spit out’ if we followed the route correctly. There were certain sets of landmarks we used to help guide our progress. This took TIME, but in and of itself, this isn’t some kind of super power. Processing this type of information at speed is what would be difficult.

I wanted to like this book. I actively hate read this book to give it a chance as if every new plot twist would refocus the book on its more interesting elements. That never happens. This book kept getting worse and finding new, creative ways to let me down. Every time something interesting happens, the focus shifts to John and his whiny past or John and Sig’s boring relationship.

  • Notes:
  • The opening scenes inter cut with brazen info dumps about the Pax Arcana is bold. You only get away with that if you’ve got the MC character’s voice down solid.
  • Initial chemistry rating Sig/Charming chemistry: frigid.
  • Say it softly: discount Harry Dresden.
  • Of course John has a dead fiance. But she’s a Steelers fan. Forgiven.
  • Stupid fantasy world-building detail: human blood is nearly 100% oxygenated. When you go to the doctor, they put the little thing on your finger, and it should read about 98%. You can’t be ‘more oxygenated than human blood’.
  • Sig stirred coffee with her finger. SHE IS THE REAL MONSTER OF THIS STORY.
  • Stupid fantasy world building detail: mainlining insulin would make you PASS OUT.
  • “I saw some TV show that called it vervain”—Vampire Diaries shout out!

Rating: 2 stars

You can finish this book. You’ll probably be continually let down, but this story keeps holding out sweet, sweet hope to you that it’ll become the interesting story you want to read.

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