A pretty good description of me trying to read a random selection from the Paranormal Romance shelf.

A pretty good description of me trying to read a random selection from the Paranormal Romance shelf.

Most of the time, when someone refers to “romantic urban fantasy,” my brain starts turning off.

Now, I’m not opposed to chick lit; in fact, I’ve been so far to the other side that when I was a favorite target of schoolyard teasing, the one thing they never managed to get under my skin was that I avidly read Nancy Drew as far back as the fourth grade. I didn’t get why it was weird. I’d already read every Hardy Boys I could get my hands on, after all! But chick lit fantasy seems to mainly be a genre where you have mere variations on a woman swooning over a vampire, werewolf, or . . . well, no, just vampires and werewolves. Yeah. It’s gotten a bit stale out there.

Well, it turns out there’s a seven-book series that, while not exactly new (the first book came out nearly ten years ago), still brings new life to this particular sub-genre. Enchanted, Inc., by Shanna Swendson, kicks off a lighthearted romantic fantasy series staring one Katie Chandler, small-town Texan girl, who discovers that New York is weirder than most New Yorkers ever dream of. It’s smart, funny, enjoyable, and just a little addictive without ever coming close to “guilty pleasure” territory.

In fact, I suspect that many of my own readers would be interested in a romantic fantasy series that is 1) very fun to read, 2) cleverly described, 3) has no sex scenes, and 4) does not feature a vampiric or wolfish love interest. I welcome you all to prove me right.

contentI spent an enjoyable week and a half reading through the entire series, occasionally discussing it with my friend Lori, and generally just enjoying the change of pace from my usual fare. I wound up being a rather enthusiastic fan of the series by the end, and decided it was something to recommend far and wide. If, like me, you normally get your hackles up at the phrase “paranormal romance,” you owe it to yourself to check out this series.

I’ve got more stuff to say about it — this is a writing blog, after all, and there are some things to look at if you’re a writer yourself — but I’ll be splitting it off into a separate post because it ran long. For now, I’m concerned only with the review portion.

Katie Chandler has a problem. She sees things. Specifically, she sees stuff that doesn’t bother other New Yorkers. She has a hard time believing anyone could be so jaded as to not notice the weird stuff she sees every day on her commute to work, but she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself as a small-town hick, Turns out, however, that she’s a magical immune. She sees through the illusions that keep the rest of the world from realizing that their coworkers are decidedly not normal.

That’s a valuable trait in magical circles, and she soon accepts a job offer with the Microsoft of magic: Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc. She’s thrust into a world where she doesn’t know the rules; a job where her boss is the original Merlin; and a situation where she might be the key to stopping a takeover of magical society. Now if only she can survive magic taking over her own life.

As I said, I plan on going into the writer-side details of the series in another post (EDIT: here you go); but no review of this series is complete without stressing how refreshing it is. That the cliches aren’t avoided so much as satirized, sometimes in the same chapter that they’re given a new twist. That the romance drives the characters forward without making the rest of the plot an afterthought. It was a sheer delight to read.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect series. Swendson’s main weakness seems to be in her prose. She’s not spectacular, and seems particularly prone to the sort of mistakes an author makes when not reading a manuscript out loud (repeated words, grammatically-correct yet awkward-sounding sentences, dialog that’s just a touch too wordy to be natural speech). However, her minor mistakes — and they are quite minor and probably mostly unnoticeable, unless you happen to be an editor — hardly detract from the fun and rather imaginative take on a genre known for being derivative. Her characters are warm and engaging, and I was rooting for Katie from nearly page one as she navigated the weirdness of New York, both mundane and otherwise.

Even the romantic aspects, so easy to make lackluster and formulaic, brought a smile to my face. Katie’s dating woes were very familiar to me, even the female-only aspects (I’ve got a lot of female friends, and I’ve heard a lot of rather detailed after-action reports). I also greatly appreciated the fact that the romance never leads to a sex scene, all the more so because the previous few books I read before this series were particularly graphic (and pretty boring). The realism extends even to Katie’s reaction to mundane yet life-changing events, and her office situations — including her reaction to work following her home — were very realistic and enjoyable.

Not an accurate representation of New Yorker approval. Your mileage may vary. Consult your doctor.

Not an accurate representation of New Yorker approval. Your mileage may vary. Consult your doctor if symptoms persist.

One thing I appreciated, even though it doesn’t mean a thing to me personally, is that Swendson either is used to Manhattan or did her research. The descriptions of street names, park locations, and public transport routes are detailed enough that she obviously intended for a New Yorker to feel at home. I know how easy it is to be thrown out of a story set in my area because the author obviously never checked his or her sources, so I always appreciate the real-life details even if I can’t put them in context. How well she succeeded, however, is up to a New Yorker to tell you.

One thing to note is that this is definitely meant as a series. I’ll have more to say on this topic and others in a sequel post, but the first five books form a particular arc that builds naturally, if a trifle slowly in the first book. The best thing about it, though, is that with every book something changes. Something that was a given before is taken away, or is revealed to be something else entirely. Swendson’s characters have to grow, change, and adapt to new circumstances, and she pulls it all off in a natural way. Instead of simply jacking up the difficulty, she changes the problems her characters face. Among other things, it keeps the “just one step outside normal” feel that makes the series work, rather than building the action so far beyond the starting point that it’s hard to see after a few books.

While I’m a guy and I enjoyed this, it’s no doubt more oriented toward female audiences. That’s driven home even more by the cover, which immediately reminded me of the Shopaholic series (which I’ve never read) or the Catholic Philosopher Chick series (which I have). Descriptions of dresses, makeup, and other very chick-lit topics abound as well, which don’t do anything for me any more than Katie describing Owen’s good looks. However, as I have several male friends who enjoy Pride and Prejudice as well as The Lord of the Rings, I suspect there’s still quite a bit of overlap potential, regardless of the stereotypical topics. After all, like Jane Austen, Swendson isn’t above satirical social comentary; and unlike with Pride and Prejudice, the world of Enchanted, Inc. is close enough for us to easily realize it is satire.

So, in short: this is good chick-lit urban fantasy, perfect for those who enjoy that sort of thing . . . or even those who tend not to but would be interested in something that isn’t just another vampire romance. It was a pleasant change of pace from my normal reading choices, and I suspect many in my audience would enjoy it as well.