Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

Owl and the Japanese Circus

October 2014
Recommended for fans of Kim Harrison, UF
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

The problem with cats as a side-kick:
He feinted back and pulled on the leash in an attempt to break my hold and get back to Charles. Nope, not desensitized. Getting better at manipulation.

A quick archeological romp through dig sites, casinos and couple of world-class cities. It’s a fun ride and with enough spark to distinguish itself in a genre full of stereotypes. I’ll have to admit; at the beginning I was struck by the resemblance to Indiana Jones. Not because of the amazing character charisma; actually, Owl is generally short on people skills. More because the plot sped along with so many entertaining events, I didn’t mind a couple of logic or character derailments and just enjoying the ride.

In brief: Owl has become an archeology thief after being bounced from her graduate program for political reasons.  Constantly on the move because of vampires seeking revenge for a job gone bad, she gets an offer she can’t refuse, no matter how much she would like to. Success– she gets paid and the vampires off her trail. Fail–she’ll be eaten by a dragon. She takes the assignment to find and translate a missing scroll, discovering she has competition.

The setting is standard modern urban fantasy: a supernatural world concealed from the normals, with supers living largely intermingled and an international squad designed to keep the magical on the down low. Personally, I’m never troubled by the ins and outs of the secret underworld scenario, and it helps that the supernaturals do not seem so populous as to cause obvious questions. I liked the world building well-enough, and I appreciated the variety of settings. There were a number of “Japanese culture is like this…” and “typical Russian that…” kind of statements, but they largely stood the generalizations on first read–at least, they didn’t appear to be condescending, more cultural generalizations.

People are real happy to make friends with you when a two-thousand-year-old mummy knocks off half their team, but returning the favor always pisses them off. No one likes to pay up out of the goodness of their heart; that’s why I usually get cash up front.

Owl is a largely familiar type, an outsider, fractious woman who keeps everyone at arms’ length and focusing on the financial rewards of her work. She reminds me most of Rachel from Kim Harrison’s Hallows series, with all of Rachel’s bravado and lack of reflection. Personally, I ran into a couple of moments where I found myself disliking Owl, but the writing and plotting pulled me through. I think by the end of the story, she experienced some appropriate and logical character growth, and at least she had people that called her out on her decisions. For me, the slight shifts towards reflection made it more rewarding than other UF series such as Morning’s Fever books, where the main character was so consistently unlikeable, I couldn’t get past book one.

The plot moved swiftly and kept me engaged. The archeological sequences were fun, and the setting changed enough to provide variety in what was essentially a series of quest steps. For some people, I suspect a number of deux ex machina solutions will possibly annoy. At critical moments, others prove to have unusual sets of skills that save the day. While it is certainly refreshing not to have a superpower/undiscovered skills–and I have to admit, there are many who do–in this case Owl has more than a little help. Her main trait, and one that most seems to resemble Rachel, is a dogged persistence. I usually end up irritated by the typical head-blind stubbornness. More than once, Owl’s refusal to do some small thing prevents an easy out/rescue/solution. However, it’s also worth noting that this book has a clear ending, while paving the way for future developments.

There are a few moments that push my boundaries of my personal UF acceptability and push it into PNR; descriptions of applying make-up, although at least here its a deception strategy; a preoccupation with labelled clothing, particularly a fascination with Chanel and Ralph Lauren (which are actually labels for an older age group, not the twenty-year-old too hip to see over my hips); an unholy obsession for Corona beer; an addiction to drinking that includes at least a couple drinks a day while a friend complains she “can’t hold her liquor;” and relationship obstacles based on unrevealed truths. Those tropes bother me, but are likely part of the development of the teen-twenty something demographic that many UFs are aiming for. There’s also some more maturely conceived PNR developments with a potentially blossoming relationship, but without enough of primary focus to move it into full PNR territory.

Very rarely, there is a tiny bit of writing that could be smoothed out–for instance, what convenience store 16 year-old clerk would be surprised at ringing up four bags of chips, diet soda, Corona and cat food?  Or saying someone is “hard to read” while complaining, “I still didn’t know where he was from.” Because emotional expression is equivalent to past? One final discordance for me was a chapter that focuses on a gaming sequence. I see where it played an overall role, and perhaps part of a character trait, but I don’t know that it fit with the tone of urgency/chase.

That said, I found the writing to be above average for the genre. Overall, it proved a pleasure, and I was glad of its diversion. I’d recommend to fans of Kim Harrison’s Hollows and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock. Currently projected to sell at $1.99, it’s a bargain price for a quality book. Here’s hoping that Charish is hard at work on the next installment, because I’ll be sure to give it a read.


Many thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing me an advance copy to review. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the writing.



About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

  1. It’s still on Netgalley, so I requested. Woo Hoo!

  2. neotiamat says:

    Juuuuust finished this a little while ago — I picked it up on the strength of your review, and I have to say you described my reactions as well. It’s got quality writing, very good pacing, and the characters were generally interesting (I confess that I found the Paris Boys hilarious). I periodically wanted to hit Owl over the head with a blunt object, but she seemed to actually grow by the book’s end, so that was good, and the PNR bits were painful but blessedly skippable.

    Overall, not a book to light the world on fire, but I had fun reading it and I’ll be getting the next one, whenever it comes out.

    • thebookgator says:

      Ha–nice summary. It is sometimes a challenge to describe why I book doesn’t annoy me when it has some weaknesses. I’ll forgive the genre ones–I am NOT a PNR fan–but if a character is unlikeable, they better show some growth for me to continue.

      • neotiamat says:

        Different people have different tastes, and also different tolerances for flaws. I have a friend who goes batty about spelling errors, while I barely notice. Looking over the reviews, I think you have more PNR tolerance than me, and less Occult Detective tolerance. To each his own!

        I think this book works in part because it does change up the formula. Owl’s a paranoid thief and an archaeologist and not some badass mercenary, even if she does have the gratuitous chip on her shoulder that seems to come standard issue to UF heroines these days (really, people, not mouthing off to the giant monster is okay! I will still respect you if you show rudimentary self-preservation skills!) Plus the writing is fun and the pacing is snappy, and one can forgive an enormous amount in exchange for good writing and pacing.

      • thebookgator says:

        Here’s my problem: I actually PREFER occult detective, if only it didn’t come with the sexist noir tropes. Or point of view, as the case may be. Sigh. Agree, Owl storyline does change it up a bit, although the wisecracking remains. 😉

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