This book has been on my to-read list for four years, and I’m glad I finally got to it. Tanya Huff delivers strong urban fantasy set in a Canadian city. She sets up an interesting family of magic users, where the women and the men participate in complicated rituals that allow them to work charms. Alongside, she sends us a light mixture of supernatural creatures to pad out the character sheet—a leprechaun, some dragons and Dragon Lords, but nothing too unusual or overwhelming. That’s what I appreciate about The Enchantment Emporium: there isn’t too much going on here. Huff keeps the plot focussed, the threads all weaving back in upon each other, which kept me interested and entertained.
Allie leaves the rest of the Gale family to go out west and take over her grandmother’s shop. Her aunties, the Gale women who are the oldest and thus have the most power, are dubious as to her grandmother’s demise. Allie isn’t ready to be tied down with family obligations, though, so she goes. She ends up discovering that her grandmother’s role in the fragile Fey community in Calgary was even weirder; she was far more than a purveyor of antiques. Oh, and there is a sorcerer in Calgary. Hiding out from Dragon Lords. Allie should just call in the aunties to help her dispatch the sorcerer (Gales don’t like sorcerers, apparently), but there is one tiny problem. The sorcerer’s hired gun is hot, and he and Allie have a fling. A thing. You know.
With these ingredients, Huff creates a perfect storm of divided loyalties, crises of confidence, and gradual acceptance of one’s powers. As Allie gets to know Graham and tries to persuade him to leave the sorcerer’s employ, she begins to feel herself changing, as she moves from “third circle” to “second circle” (which is apparently how the Gales rank power). She is still healing from her first break-up with a childhood friend who discovered he was gay. This alone might be enough to make someone feel uncertain about herself; Allie’s life is further complicated by having to wade through the various milestones and rituals that accompany being a Gale woman (not to mention all the various attendant family members who want to “help”).
It’s great to read about a heroine who is as self-possessed and confident as Allie is who isn’t also a) the Chosen One and b) some kind of kickass streetfighter. Don’t get me wrong; I loves me the Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Allie is a research assistant in anthropology, not a fighter, and the way she interacts with the “heavies” of the supernatural world—the Dragon Lords, the sorcerer—reflect this. She is protective of her friends and allies and confident when she stands up to her potential enemies, but it’s a calmer confidence. (In a way, it’s a little bit naive, because Allie is banking a lot on the reputation of the Gales and her ability to call her aunties in for help.) Nevertheless, even though she never starts and rarely engages in direct confrontation, Allie gets a lot done.
For example, it is easy to miss it if you are focusing only on the main plot, but Allie has clearly decided to stay in Calgary by about the middle of the book. She has some of her friends working on the apartment above the store pretty much continuously throughout the book, and every so often Huff will remark upon how much is getting done. Not only is Allie investigating the machinations of an amoral sorcerer; she is making the apartment and store her own. (The moment she consciously realizes this, and accepts it symbolically by disposing of the monkey’s paw, is awesome.)
There’s also a lot to be said for the development of the supporting characters, like Joe. He starts as a surly, suspicious leprechaun who can’t wait to get out of there. As Allie shows him more trust and respect, he returns in kind. I would have liked to see Joe figure in the plot a little more—if not as a participant, then as a source of information—but I enjoyed seeing him used as a signpost for Allie’s effect on the people around her.
Allie herself grows up a lot. Until now, she hasn’t really confronted her own ambivalent feelings about the way the older Gale women manipulate and control the younger ones. Much of her time in Calgary involves recognizing this problem and trying to figure out how to deal with it—as it becomes apparent, Allie still relies on her aunties for help dealing with the situation, but she starts to realize she can still be calling the shots. There’s no question in my mind that the book would have ended a lot differently if Allie had simply sat back and let the aunties take charge.
Speaking of ambivalence, I’m not sure how I feel, on balance, about the romance between Allie and Graham. I like Graham well enough, and I recognize that Huff was trying to create some confusion, with him torn between his compelled loyalty to the sorcerer and his attraction to Allie, not to mention all the baggage that Allie brings with her in the form of ritual. Perhaps this was my problem—Huff never quite explains the rituals as explicitly as I would like, so it all still seems kind of uncertain for me. This issue resurfaces throughout the book. I’m quite intrigued by the Gale family, but I wish Huff had been less cryptic in her revelation of how their abilities work.
Similarly, I wish there had been more complex interrogations of the gender dynamics at work, both within and without the Gale family. Allie couldn’t bring Michael into the fold because, being gay, he understandably didn’t want to marry her and father some babies. It seems like the Gale gender roles are pretty prescribed, though—women make pie, men do what the women say and have lots of sex. What happens if a member of the Gale family is gay? (Mind you, there seems to be some implication that everyone in the family is just pansexual, so there’s that.) Huff has no problems portraying Allie with the realistic, healthy sex drive for someone her age, but she comes up short when it comes to fully illuminating the connections between attraction, sex, and power that seem to be present within the Gale family.
Power is a major motif in this book. The Gales have it; the sorcerer has it; the Dragon Lord has it. It’s all about who has the power. And, according to the aunties, power corrupts and can’t be trusted in the hands of one person—that’s why they always dispatch sorcerers. However, Huff remains unclear just what the Gales are doing with all this power, other than baking pie. Why have this power if they don’t use it? Is there something more sinister going on here? I’m disappointed this isn’t directly addressed, and I find it problematic considering the role that power plays throughout the rest of the book.
On the plus side, I liked how The Enchantment Emporium is very comfortable with its contemporary setting. It’s easy to stick an “urban fantasy” label on a book, but in my experience, a lot of contemporary urban fantasy takes on distinct tones from other genres that might be anachronistic to its setting. (For example, The Dresden Files, my gold standard for urban fantasy, often takes on elements of the noir, and Butcher intentionally limits the amount of technology his characters can use.) Huff is able to create a strong impression that this could all happen now, in everyday Calgary, right under people’s noses.
Oh. And did I mention there is pie? All kinds: apple, key lime, rhubarb … sorry, but I really love pie. And the magical, ever-filling pie fridge in Allie’s apartment made me very jealous and very hungry.
I enjoyed The Enchantment Emporium a ridiculous amount, especially considering all the flaws I’ve found in it. (Sometimes I think that’s one of the best measures of a book’s quality—how much you enjoyed it despite recognizing its shortcomings.) I will read the sequel, which looks like it’s about Allie’s cousin Charlie, and I look forward to another interesting tale.