When I was younger, I was ridiculously fond of watching Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. (I still am. I just don’t have the time to watch it as much any more, nor am I spry enough to stay up until 1 am when it’s usually on these days.) The show is typical of the 1990s sitcom-with-a-twist: typically, each episode consists of Sabrina trying to solve a typical adolescent dilemma with magic, only to make the situation even worse when her spell goes awry. From time to time, the bureaucrats of the magical world would interfere (and because this could involve Penn Jilette, it was often hilarious), but mostly it was about how life in high school is hard, and magic doesn’t make it any easier (and actually seems to make it somewhat harder). And then Sabrina went off to college, dumped jock Harvey for sensitive photographer Josh, and the show began its inevitable decline. For a time, though, it was a lot of fun.
Despite a few, notable darker storylines, though, that’s all it was. The problem and spell would be fixed by the end of the episode, and everyone would laugh and smile—it was, after all, the 1990s. There was no reason for the show to explore the darker implications of the existence of hereditary witchcraft and the enemies this might attract, not when its goal was a half-hour of light entertainment each week.
Poltergeeks, then, for all its adolescent protagonists, probably bears more resemblance to the grittier witches and wizards of the past two decades. Julie is fully aware of her abilities as a witch, but her mother hasn’t been completely forthcoming about Julie’s magical heritage. When an enemy with a vendetta against Julie and her mother puts the latter in a coma, Julie finds herself squaring off against an entity that seems to have more power than she could ever hope to match. Though she has allies, she is largely forced to rely on her own skills and determination not to be beaten. If she fails, the stakes are very real: her mom will die, she will most probably die, and no one will be left to stop whatever dark plans this spirit has for the rest of Calgary.
Oh yeah, it’s young adult urban fantasy set in Calgary. Not quite my neck of the woods, but yay, Canada!
As far as supernatural elements go, Sean Cummings plays it fairly conservative, which definitely works here. We get the basic overview of witch politics: a Grand Council oversees local covens, and then some witches, like Julie’s mom, freelance as long as they stay inside the rules. There are also ghosts, poltergeists, and spirits, as well as immortals like the information broker Holly Penske. But so far there are no signs of vampires, werewolves, goblins, etc. If these creatures exist, Cummings is keeping the lid on them until later books—and that’s fine. I hate it when a book spends so much time attempting to catalogue its particular bestiary that it loses track of the plot.
That’s far from the case with Poltergeeks. This is a short book, but it still feels like a complete and satisfying story. The threat appears very quickly, Julie and Marcus spend most of the book investigating and dealing with it, and then the confrontation and denouement make for an exciting final twenty pages or so. Cummings keeps the story moving at a comfortable pace, alternating between scenes of significant events, whether they involve action or exposition, with pauses for reflection.
In the case of the latter, most of that comes from Julie, our first-person narrator. Now, I like Julie: she’s honest with herself, a little lacking in self-esteem—which seems realistic enough—and loyal to her friends and family. In this respect, Cummings has nailed her characterization. Her voice, however, is too self-aware. That is, rather than immersing me in a story narrated by Julie, I find myself very much aware of the techniques he is using to make the story seem like it is narrated by Julie. Maybe I’m just being overly critical on this point—certainly, I have no idea how realistic a younger reader would find it, and that’s what really matters, no?
This is, of course, the trouble I have with reviewing fiction aimed at younger adults. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between obvious plotting and clues laid for less experienced readers; for example, I deduced the identity of the vessel of Matthew Hopkins pretty quickly, but I wonder if someone less familiar with these types of stories would be more surprised. Similarly, for me the entire subplot involving Julie and Marcus’ nascent romance is lacklustre and difficult to find exciting. (Cummings deserves kudos, however, for the skilful way that he actually manages to tie all of this together into the main plot and still have it make sense.)
I might have some reservations, then. But there’s a lot to admire about the book as well. Unlike a lot of fiction aimed at young adults, there is a notable lack of characters carrying the Idiot Ball here. Julie’s mother and father elected to keep Julie in the dark about certain aspects of her heritage, but Cummings explains it in a way that is sensible and honest on the part of her parents—and, to be fair, this particular crisis is not one that they could have foreseen. Everything that happens in the story happens for a reason, and in the end it all coalesces into a satisfying picture that the attentive reader—regardless of age—can admire and enjoy, especially if they have been guessing and sleuthing alongside Julie for the entire thing. So I certainly hope that I’m striking a good balance of criticism here.
Because the bottom line is this: I really like Poltergeeks and would recommend it for young adult readers itching to bite their teeth on some urban fantasy. This is the kind of young adult fiction I’d love to pitch to my school library. It reminds me a lot in its structure and tone of The Dresden Files, albeit for a younger audience. Julie is a proto-Dresden—even better, she isn’t a chivalrous-yet-chauvinistic smartass, so in some ways she is far superior to Dresden. Cummings is channelling that same mixture of cynical noir mystery with humorous, heroic characters that I find so appealing about the Dresden books. Just as it seems that everyone and their mother is keeping secrets from Harry about his heritage and his role in a deeper supernatural conspiracy, Julie’s involvement in supernatural politics through her inherited position as a Shadowcull is a compelling hook for what will hopefully be a robust, nuanced series.
I want to emphasize that second adjective. For all its lightheartedness, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch also had its moments of keen nuance: it would use its humour to belie the stereotype of Libby the cheerleader, or subtly demonstrate to the audience the moral dubiousness of some of Sabrina’s choices. It did this all with a female protagonist who, in a house with two aunts and a talking cat, still managed to find her way. That’s more than I can say for some of the grittier series now populating the schedule, which seem to use the promise of dark imagery and endless romantic triangles to disguise the vacuousness of its characters.
I’d like to see more books like Poltergeeks. Books where the heroine isn’t moping because she’s the object of affection for only two supernatural beings but instead is a dynamic person who has her own goals and agenda. Books where the stakes are real, the grit is tangible, but at the same time, the drama and romance are natural extensions of the story, rather than afterthoughts necessary to tick all the boxes on the "supernatural YA" checklist that’s tacked on the door of Plato’s cupboard somewhere. These are the books I want to read. These are the books I want the upcoming generation of adults to read. These are the books you should want to read. Maybe not this book, if it isn’t particularly your cup of tea, but books like it.
Still, give it a try. It has its main characters researching for supernatural activity by searching on YouTube. If that isn’t timely and realistic, I don’t know what is.