As I said in my review of Shanna Swendson’s Enchanted series, I wound up with a lot more to say that was really appropriate for a review. Like many of my posts, it’s a long one, clocking in at over three thousand words, but it’s aimed more at writers than all readers. And, I promise: spoiler free! (Well, except for the romance angle.)

So, without further ado, here’s my analysis of this new favorite series. 

The Triumph of the Ordinary

There are generally two ways to handle the introduction of an urban fantasy setting. Either the main character is an outsider and stands in for the audience, who discovers it alongside our protagonist; or said protagonist is already experienced with the setting, and the issues related to that setting are revealed in a more matter-of-fact manner. The first is what the Harry Potter series does, though that series isn’t actually urban fantasy; the latter is probably best seen in The Dresden Files series, which is about an entirely different wizard named Harry, and currently the series for this genre.

Enchanted, Inc. takes the first route. We follow Katie Chandler as she is is exposed to the hidden world that underpins New York City, a world side-by-side with the mundane world yet interacting with it on a daily basis. The city, as it turns out, is full of supernatural creatures and supernatural events, right down to enchanted frogs in Central Park and dragons in the sewers. (The dragons ate all the alligators.)

Further books continue this; Katie never gains significantly more familiarity with the magical world than what the audience gains right alongside her. In some urban fantasies, this comes off as unnatural; for Katie, who would really like to separate her work life and her private life (who doesn’t?), and whose strength certainly isn’t in academic pursuits (which doesn’t mean she’s not smart; she’s simply uninterested in scholarship as something other than a means to an end), this comes across as completely believable.

The usual urban fantasy trope has the inexperienced hero/heroine somehow managing to save the day by the end of the book. That’s almost always because of either the character’s secret superpower (“You’re a wizard, Harry!”) or because the same character’s terrific ordinariness serves as a catalyst that makes the supernatural folk sit up and take notice (basically the premise of the TV show Eureka, though that’s urban science fiction). Enchanted, Inc. takes the unusual step of doing both at once, and pulls it off in a rather natural and definitely enjoyable manner.

Katie, you see, is completely ordinary. She’s the girl next door, the little sister you never had, the mild-mannered Southern gal who doesn’t like saying anything mean even if you deserve it. And, as she discovers, she’s so ordinary that she has no magic whatsoever. She’s a magical immune, and that makes her extraordinary.

Pulling off the ordinary as better than the extraordinary is something I really appreciate. Most of the time I don’t mind stories that make it better to be special, because that’s natural. We all want to be the secret prince or princess. We all want to have a lightsaber or magic powers. What I dislike is when that takes a step further and says it’s bad to be ordinary. The worst part about Twilight for me (aside from being so boring that I couldn’t bring myself to read book two, and this was back before I’d heard any bad reviews so I thought it was just me) was that being human was presented as little more than a curse.

That’s not how it should be. Good stories make you disappointed to come back to the real world because you miss the characters and situations you just experienced, not because they said the place you live in sucks. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi with amazing powers, but in the service of others rather than himself. In Harry Potter, Harry learns to be a wizard, but never takes magic for granted because he knows what it’s like without it.

One of my favorite bits of Chesterton describes this as the very purpose of fantasy. He said that in Elfland, the rivers run with wine only to remind you for one wild instant that they run with water. It’s the forgotten moment of our childhood when we first took delight in the ordinary, because it was new. Swendson’s Enchanted Inc. does exactly that, letting us take another look at being normal, and how the little things become all the more extraordinary.

Katie uses common sense and determination to solve problems more than she uses her immunity. She can think outside the box because she’s never been in it; but even more than that, she’s still the practical-minded small-town girl who kept her family going. Swendson does a far better job of presenting that as a real difference than Eureka ever did for me.

A Casual Yet Interesting Magic System

Most stories which go into the idea of magic as a natural energy field (it binds us and penetrates us and . . . wait, wrong universe) tend to mention that most people have access to it even if it’s not enough to really do anything. Once said, that concept is generally ignored. It’s just there to give us the idea that there really is a scale of power, and our heroes don’t exist in a vacuum.

In Katie’s world, however, having magic is necessary to experiencing magic. That means that most humans have just enough magic to be affected by spells (particularly the spells that make you ignore people walking down the street with fairy wings, or gargoyles that switch which buildings they guard). Katie, however, is completely immune. She can’t work magic, but she can’t be affected by spells; she can’t see illusions, but she can never be fooled. In fact, her main problem since moving to New York City has been that she was having an increasingly difficult time rationalizing what she saw.

Now she knows the truth — and she’s got a job offer, too. It turns out that Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc. has a real need for magic-immune humans (particularly ones who haven’t gone crazy from seeing things no one else notices). Even the most powerful wizard can still get fooled by spells, but immunes can see through invisibility veils, spot hidden clauses in contracts, and generally save the day by always seeing reality rather than fantasy — even if that reality looks an awful lot like fantasy.

The rules for magic aren’t explicitly stated; this isn’t a Sandersonesque hard-magic system where the challenge of magic comes as much in figuring out what it can’t do as much as what it can. The limitations on the characters don’t tend to be in terms of beating the enemy in a fight, but rather in out-thinking them, out-planning them, and adapting to changing circumstances. The magic is, for the most part, just there as support for the characters’ other skills.

That said, it’s also a system where certain rules are clearly laid down and they don’t get broken, though sometimes the reader doesn’t realize that until several chapters (or half a book, in at least one case) have gone by. While I like magic systems with hard and clear rules, forcing characters to think outside the box, Swendson did a masterful job of balancing casual “it works because it does” rules with detailed “no magic beyond this line” rules.

A Gentle Romance

I found the romance delightful, because it was realistic. Many times, particularly in fantasy, I find authors writing romances which are whirlwinds of passion, which if they aren’t entirely physical still seem more physical than truly romantic. Katie’s romantic experiences are awkward, hesitant, full of disaster, and — quite frankly — adorable. They were also completely relateable. We all dream of getting that super-hot person to fall for us and for everything to go just right. How often does that happen?

I tell my students that there are two basic romance plots. Romance Plot One is “Boy meets girl, and they hate each other,” while Romance Plot Two is “Boy meets girl, and they like each other, but circumstances keep them apart.” Some of the best romances use both, such as Pride and Prejudice; others play on the circumstances and turn it into romantic tragedy, such as Romeo and Juliet. There are a wide range of possibilities, because even though they start with two types, the author can play on those themes. The tension comes from how their separation is resolved, how it gets worse before it gets better, and how they each grow as a result.

In the last several urban fantasies I’d read, the romantic tension was pretty much nonexistent because either it was entirely sexual, or because the male and female leads had already slept with each other and the author was struggling to make that plotline interesting. That’s more than doable without resorting to arguments between the romantic pair (I highly recommend the Thin Man movie series as an example . . . actually, I just recommend it period, go watch it), but far too many authors have trouble with that concept. You can see it on TV a lot, where the show drags out sexual tension to the point that the audience doesn’t find it fun, before finally letting the leads sleep with each other — and then suddenly, nothing. It’s like the point of romance is to go to bed, and nothing more.

Katie’s romance with Owen isn’t like that. Oh, it sticks to Romance Plot Two, but in a delightful way that plays with the audience’s expectations. Nearly every date they go on is spoiled by something, but it’s something they work to overcome and they both grow as a result. And not always in the best way, as we see in book three, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entirely natural.

And Swendson does it without ever once having Katie and Owen sleep with each other, either. That’s not just impressive by standing out against the rest; it’s impressive because it’s completely natural. Never once does it seem like Swendson wants to pull a bait-and-switch on the audience like the TV shows I mentioned; nor does she ever apologize for it, or have characters say it’s just something they want to save for the right time, or in any way indicate that it’s somehow shameful not to fall into bed with each other at a moment’s notice.

These are two human beings who can take joy and wonder not only in each other, but in the idea that they themselves could possibly attract someone like that. They don’t take anything for granted. That is so wonderfully refreshing that I don’t know how to describe it. A good romance is awkward, hesitating, wonderous, and very human.

All in all, I feel like Katie and Owen could be me, and vice versa. That’s what a romance story should be.

Shaking Things Up

The first book is essentially all about revealing the extraordinary, shaking up Katie’s world. Most good authors would build on that, taking each book to new heights. This can create problems, though; just look at how superheroes are always fighting some menace bigger than the last, or a TV show seems to conveniently forget about a previous plot device that would have made this problem simple to solve. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek.)

It’s more than possible to build on challenges, even if the challenges become greater and greater. In fact, you have to, because otherwise you lose your audience. Characters must evolve and grow or they aren’t realistic. (One of these days I’ll have to record my Writing Dynamic Characters lecture and put it online.)

Swendson takes it a step further and creates a shake-up for every book, so that either Katie or someone close to Katie is experiencing something so radically new that it changes the reader’s expectations. Yet at every step, this is natural. The change might be because of an enemy, or because one of the good guys made a mistake, or it might be coincidence; but every time, it means a new set of problems to solve.

Swendson does exactly what I recommend authors do: namely, to remember that growth isn’t just a matter of up and big, but also out and around. Her male lead is one of the most powerful wizards in the world, but big spells aren’t what save the day. They might help the change, but they’re not always a catalyst for that change. Swendson’s characters face new and different challenges, and have to constantly adapt to figure out how to save the day, usually against stacked odds.

The Big Apple

All but one of these books takes place in or around the greater New York City area; other than Don’t Hex with Texas, the furthest they travel is New Jersey. (Well, except for the elven realms, but I understand from my New Yorker friends that New Jersey is weirder.) As I said in my review, this is shown through a rather large amount of research. I’ll have to wait on New York natives to confirm it for me, but it feels real to me. And I know from reading her blog that she went through Manhattan looking for specific places, and even adjusted certain elements based at a late date based on new information.

And it’s not just her depiction of the big city, either; small town Texas is also accurate. My friend Lori said that while Katie’s town of Cobb is real, it felt to her that it was about her own small town just a bit to the west. Stands to reason, since this is where Swendson lives.

I live just outside DC (because if I say I live in Maryland, people think I mean Baltimore or Annapolis), and so I see my local area show up a lot in books, shows, and movies. Everyone gets annoyed when something is obviously wrong, and I’m not just talking about the subway cars being wrong. I’m talking about things like the difference between the Metropolitan Police Department and the Metro Transit Police, or where the FBI headquarters are located, or which side of the Mall a particular museum is on, or even — yes, this has happened — confusing the National Mall with a shopping outlet.

. . . sorry, I had to pause to recover from that last memory. *rubs forehead*

The point is, if you set your story in a particular real-world place, do your research. The majority of people might not know how to spot the differences, but the people who do live there will, and they’ll let other people know. They might be forgiving, as happened with Jim Butcher (who, if I recall correctly, never visited Chicago until about seven books into his famous set-in-Chicago Dresden Files). Or they might continually lampoon your efforts, the same way gun, science, music, or history experts will notice other mistakes in their fields.

Word gets around, and it cuts both ways. If your book turns out to be accurate, those same experts will love you for it, and they will recommend your book to others. I’ve seen it happen.

Flaws to Learn From

I often get bogged down in the editor details. It’s my job, after all. Swendson, even in book seven, is making repeated prose mistakes (most notably repetitive words, but also some plot and pacing issues) that I constantly notice, even in the audiobook version. I frequently make use of audiobooks for leisure reading, because when I’m reading the actual words I feel like I’m working. Audio helps me take a step back.

Yet even though my editor-senses tingled a lot, I didn’t feel like I was working even when I was reading the ebook version. I was able to relax and kick back in my easy chair, or on my couch, or just lying in bed before falling asleep, simply enjoying the story. Good characters, good humor, and good storytelling can make up for a lot, even when you’re used to looking through manuscripts with a fine-toothed comb. Swendson is one of the few authors that I can read without feeling like I should be taking notes for the author, and every one of them has mastered the “fun” of storytelling as his or her first responsibility for their readers.

As I said in my earlier review, her worldbuilding could have used a few punch-ups, mainly in the way that the magical world — which is intertwined with mortal civilization rather than mostly-separated like in Harry Potter — interacts with mundane things like the court system, law enforcement, or even taxes. She makes a throwaway joke about the IRS having wizards, and I wondered what that might lead to; and yet in the first book, the wizards were rather unaware of legal matters like intellectual property rights. It takes until the fifth book for us to see magical cops, and yet we knew there were laws against magical crimes from the beginning. They’re minor points, and addressing them wouldn’t have made a difference to the plots, but they stand out to me.

If you’re looking to write, and not just read, then that means that this series is a good one to study. Even if you’re looking to write gritty stories about the darker side of human nature, pay attention to how Swendson keeps the plot going without delving too deep. Even when she gets into the darker side herself, she keeps it from becoming overwhelming through a skillful use of tricks and techniques that go all the way back to Shakespeare and earlier, such as clown-characters, the use of ironic timing and juxtaposition, and — above all — the way characters in a funny scene don’t always realize that anyone would find it funny at all.

And for you budding editors out there, I would recommend this series as a way to practice your line-editing skills. Find those places where Swendson uses repetitive words or phrases, or where you think she used a few too many words, and see what you can do to adjust it without losing what she’s trying to say.

In Conclusion . . .

As I said, I loved this series. It’s now one of my top recommendations, for all of these reasons I listed above (even the flaws, which are minor even to this editor’s eyes), but also just because this series was fun. The plot is about saving the world, and yet they still feel localized, relateable, and a joy to read. My job has made it difficult for me to simply relax with a good book, so when I find one that works, I know it’s a good one to recommend.