Monday, June 7, 2010

Book Review: Magic, Mensa and Mayhem

Magic, Mensa & Mayhem

Magic, Mensa & Mayhem by Karina L. Fabian. Swimming Kangaroo Books (Arlington, Texas): 2009. 219 pages. $11.89.

As I recall, I won this book from the author in a raffle. When I recently learned it had won an Indie Award for Best Fantasy, I figured it was time for a review.

Magic, Mensa & Mayhem is set in Fabian's Dragon Eye P.I. universe, where a nuclear disaster in Colorado has opened a rift in space-time leading to Faerie, an alternate Earth populated by the usual array of legendary and mythological beings, where much of the world more-or-less resembles a fantasy version of Medieval Europe. The protagonist and narrator is Vern, a dragon pressed by the magical prowess of St. George into service an agent for the Faerie Catholic Church, a job that in the present day involves, for reasons not quite clear, working on the "Mundane" side of the space-time rift as a hard-boiled private detective, assisted appropriately by a nun, Sister Grace, who is also a powerful mage. In this particular story, Vern and Grace receive the unsavory duty of chaperoning various magical creatures who've been invited as guests to a Mensa meeting in Florida. Shenanigans ensue, and the result is a hodgepodge of urban fantasy, slapstick humor, and mystery novel.

The Dragon Eye P.I. universe is a place of constant confusions and cultural slip-ups where Faeries and Mundanes are perpetually struggling to get along with each other as the Mundanes learn to adapt to magic and the Faeries learn to adapt to technology, and where some occasionally manage to combine the two into something new, or else produce unintended disasters.  It doesn't help that the Faeries are mostly pranksters and the Mundanes are mostly idiots.  Much of the book consists of Vern diffusing situations caused by misunderstandings or practical jokes while complaining that he's not being paid enough.

The various fairy creatures are cartoonish, humorous versions stripped of any awe or majesty.  The elves, in particular, are ridiculous, depicted as windbags whose language is similar to Tolkien's Entish, taking hours upon hours to say the simplest things.  All of the elves have silly names like Pampaserrbahgh or Galendoropynphordaladys, the meanings of which can be easily discerned after a moment's reflection.  I admit I didn't like the elves much, mostly because their names wrecked my suspension of disbelief, but the other fantasy creatures and Faerie humans are consistently entertaining; Coyote the Trickster and Brunhilde the Valkyrie, in particular, are good foils for Vern, and Fabian re-imagines brownies with a comical twist on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The novel is a quick read, enjoyable throughout, and funny, though I rarely found myself laughing aloud.  Fabian successfully captures the hard-boiled detective narrator voice without overdoing it.  Nonetheless, though it is a mystery novel, anyone looking for a sense of the mysterious, or a serious exploration of cultural collision, should look elsewhere.

I have two rather minor complaints.  The first is simply that the mystery isn't quite fair to the reader.  With a mystery story, I generally expect that if I keep careful track of the details, I'll either be able to figure out the solution ahead of time or else slap my head for not figuring out the solution when it's finally presented.  In this novel, however, so many extra details, not previously mentioned, have to be delivered when it's time for the solution that I don't think any reader has a chance of figuring it all out ahead of time.  This makes for something of a disappointment rather than a good twist.

The second complaint is about the overt Catholic elements in the story, which appeared heavy-handed to me.  For some reason, Vern feels a need to pontificate for about a page on the doctrine of Original Sin while explaining how a certain magic spell works, a mini-lecture I was sore-tempted to skim over, as it was both irrelevant and dull.  Elsewhere, we learn that Vern formerly worked for the Faerie Catholic Inquisition, and he even threatens some of his fellow Faeries with it.  I wanted to see someone inform him that his Inquisition has no jurisdiction in the United States, and that he can stick it in his ear.

On the whole it's a very good read with only a few flaws.
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