If Famous Witches and Wizards Cards featured beloved wizards from the pages of literature, you know there would be a card each for J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, Tolkien’s Gandalf, Peter Beagle’s Schmendrick, and John Bellairs’s Prospero… I’ve already got quite a long list in mind. Now that I’ve read this brief book by the Newbery Medal- and National Book Award-winning author of the “Prydain Chronicles”, I have another name to add to that list: Arbican. He doesn’t do much magic in this book, and most of what he does goes wrong, and on first acquaintance he may seem a bit brusque and grumpy, not very lovable at all. But in the last few pages of this book, he earns his Chocolate Frog Card, wands down. In fact, for the sake of one paragraph, a single speech in which he finally sets straight what is and isn’t true about fairy tales, he’s a shoe-in.
The fifth and final book of “The Parasol Protectorate” confronts Lady Alexia Maccon, née Tarabotti, and her team of supernatural sleuths, with a mystery that reaches back into ancient Egypt. Intertwined with this mystery are a present-day murder case, a dark secret that threatens to break up the pack of werewolves led by Alexia’s Alpha husband, and the lingering puzzle of the father she never knew. And so a racy, funny series of romantic whodunits, blending vampires, werewolves, 1870s steampunk, and complex but convincing world-building, comes to an exciting and richly satisfying conclusion.
In the fourth “Repairman Jack” novel, the rakoshi are back. Those were the blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, man-eating demons from Indian prehistory, who terrorized Jack and his loved ones in “The Tomb”. Now the last rakosh—the one who left his claw-marks on Jack’s chest—has turned up in a freak show at the same quaint Long Island town where Jack battled the otherness in “Conspiracies”. Jack is torn between killing it, to make sure it can never hurt Gia and Vicky again, and leaving it alone to die in captivity. But his decision is complicated by an outbreak of extreme violence, the result of a designer drug that has become all the rage (ha, ha) in the streets of Manhattan.
It’s the fourth book of “The Parasol Protectorate”, and only the first time that phrase is mentioned in the series. Also known as the “Alexia Tarabotti” novels (though she’s been Lady Maccon since her marriage), they relate the racy, dangerous adventures of a soulless, or preternatural, lady in a steampunk version of Victorian England. Being preternatural means she can turn vampires and werewolves mortal with a touch; she can even exorcise ghosts. Being the wife of Conal Maccon, Alpha werewolf of the Woolsey Pack, means that she has influence over one segment of the Greater London supernatural set. Her seat on the Queen’s secret Shadow Council, as muhjah (representing the preternatural interest), gives her unusual (for a woman) influence over government policy. And her unprecedented pregnancy, the fruit of a cross-species mating with a werewolf, makes her a threat to the undead status quo.
In the fourth “Odd Thomas” novel, a 21-year-old ghost-whisperer continues his sabbatical from his career as a fry cook. Every time he tries to get away from the stress of dealing with the dead, trouble finds him—bigger and nastier than ever. His small hometown in the Mojave desert wasn’t peaceful enough. His retreat to a mountaintop monastery was spoiled by a terrifying ordeal. And now it seems he can’t even lie low on a sunny California beach without tripping over a terrorist plot. Perhaps it’s serendipity. Perhaps it’s just that his gift always leads him where he is needed. But somehow, it almost seems as if Odd’s moves are guided by a master plan. It’s tough on him; but luckily for most folks, it’s even tougher on the bad guys.
Jack is still trying to live life his way—which means being non-existent in the eyes of the System. No criminal record. No tax filings. No social security number. Fake identities only. The rapid pace of technology both helps and hinders him in this quest. Email and voicemail are easier to deal with than having to check the answering machine in a dummy office. Credit cards, paid off promptly in the name of dead children, make it easier to go unnoticed as he buys supplies for his problem-fixing business. On the other hand, government databases make it harder to get away with all this victimless identity theft. It’s hard for a hands-on kind of guy to keep up with the fast-changing world, especially when (going by the books’ publication dates) last summer was 16 years ago. It’s hard to stay committed to a risky, often violent line of work when there’s a beautiful woman worrying about you and a sweet little girl counting on you. And that’s not even bringing up Jack’s dad, who wants him to move down to Florida and get a real job.
Jack, last name withheld, lives off the grid in New York City. He has no social security number. He pays no income taxes. All his IDs are fake. As far as officialdom is concerned, he doesn’t exist. And that’s the way he likes it. “Repairman Jack,” as he is professionally known, fixes problems for a living. When people come to his website looking for someone to fix their broken appliances, he ignores them. When they need help with a trickier problem, he chooses whether to get back to them or not. He can afford to be picky. His fee is very high. But he’s a tough, resourceful guy who knows how to stay unnoticed, how to follow and not be spotted, how to move and not be followed, how to find out what’s really going on, and then how to deal with it. He’s not a bad guy. But he’s no stranger to deadly force either. If you mess with him… look out.
Here’s what you want to know about these stories in general: Their writing was spread out over most of the years Butcher has been working on the Dresden Files. They fill cracks in the canon between the Dresden novels and blanks in the background of Harry and his friends. They spotlight a rich variety of themes, tones, and secondary characters. They cover a range of moods between deep cold terror and urgent panicky thrills, between laughter and tragedy, between light detective jobs with a side of magic and crises that shake the fabric of creation. Two of them are told from the point of view of characters other than Harry, while he himself remains in the background. And yet all of them are charged with the unmistakable energy of fun that we have come to associate with a certain wisecracking, tough-as-nails wizard.
Give a Chicago private eye a magic wand, and what do you get? Well, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, mostly. But Harry Dresden is a wizard of our time—a little rusty with high-tech gadgetry, to be sure, but also a VW Beetle-driving, pop-culture-riffing, very human wizard. One reviewer frequently quoted in jacket blurbs of the Dresden novels likens him to a mash-up of Philip Marlowe and Merlin. But actually, he’s a lot more like Richard Castle combined with Harry Potter. If you really want your wand-wielding detective hard boiled, you should try Mick Oberon. He has the period for it: the 1930s, the age of bootleggers and Chicago gangsters like Bugs Moran and Al Capone. He also has a shoulder holster in which he packs a high-caliber wand, best used for giving and taking luck and maybe spinning the occasional glamour. He talks in a clipped voice loaded with period slang, like “flivver” for “automobile” and “gink” for “man.” He could almost have stepped out of a pulp novel by James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler. Only, he isn’t human.
In Book 3 of the “Odd Thomas” series, the young fry cook who sees dead people has retreated to a monastery in the mountains for a needed break from the stress of his quiet hometown. He only wants a little time to heal from two harrowing encounters with monsters in human form. But his respite is cut short by the appearance of bodachs at the abbey—or more precisely, in the school for mentally and physically disabled children run by nuns, next door to the monastery. These silent, shadowy creatures always seem drawn to places where there will soon be violence on a big scale. For reasons Odd cannot begin to guess, the gloating bodachs have started to crowd around these defenseless and unwanted children. He has only a day or two to figure out how to protect them, and from whom. Or what.