The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

I’ve always thought of much of the urban fantasy field as taking off with Ann Rice and Laurel Hamilton books, so when I saw this book was published in 1993, I had to give it a shot. It is of the alternate history kind of urban fantasy, with magic as the basis for technological development. David Fisher works for the Environmental Perfection Agency as an inspector. His manager in the District of St. Columbia wants him to unofficially follow up on a tip that a waste dump north of Angels City might be experiencing problems. As David investigates, he discovers that three area children have been born soulless, and there’s more than the usual numbers of elf-shot, werewolves and vampires in the area. The dump manager seems like an honest sort, but it’ll take a warrant and legal challenges to get more information. When a monastery is burned down, it becomes clear that David is onto a deadly conspiracy.

Apparently arising out of a discussion at a convention, Turtledove created a world-view that mostly works by Principle of Substitution. Instead of ‘Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley,’ we have ‘Angels City and St. Ferdinand’s Valley.’ Telephones use imps to pass information, and alarm clocks are powered by small spirits. People use flying carpets instead of cars, and doesn’t that just create a new level of merging challenge! Parchment is used instead of paper, but David will still need to convince a judge to issue a warrant to further investigate the dump. Elevators are powered by spell-inscribed parchments and an air spirit. It’s an interesting technique; while it allows one to jump right into a story without extensive world-building, I did get the pun-ish vibe of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series.

The concepts I found the most intriguing was the general idea of separate-but-equal religions that seems to underlie the worldview. However, I’m not sure it entirely worked, particularly with how the story developed. And no, I don’t remember what they said about atheism, except that everyone agreed that the three children born without souls was a profound tragedy. I’m not sure that was ever explained, as it didn’t sound like it would impact their earthly experience. There’s also some aspects of the story that deal with immigration, an ongoing discussion in the L.A. Basin. I appreciated it was integrated and acknowledged in the story, as so many ‘urban’ fantasies seem to ignore the nature of the urban setting. However, as the story progressed, I’m not entirely sure that it worked out in a non-judgmental kind of way.

Characters were well developed. Unfortunately, David’s a mid-level bureaucrat, and much of his routine is rather mundane. His inner narrative gives insight to the world he lives in, but even discussion of imps and telephones couldn’t keep me interested in his phone calls. I particularly liked his relationship with Judith, an editor and proofreader at a grimoire publishing firm. David uses her as a sounding board, and she contributes valuable ideas when they brainstorm. But what I liked even more is that their relationship seemed mature and balanced, without the interpersonal drama (usually due to misunderstandings) that so characterizes the genre.

Plotting was acceptable, although it dragged a bit in the beginning. I almost felt as if Turtledove really had followed a mid-level bureaucrat through a week of his life and then magicalized it. And, as you might imagine, most people’s professional details are not interesting enough that detailing them gives any benefit to the sense of routine. I won’t spoil it, but as the investigation of the dump starts to escalate, the plotting picks up and becomes more complicated, almost to the point where it seems like another story.

While I was glad to have finally read Turtledove, a classic fantasy author, the story didn’t deeply engage me. I read it with intellectual interest as to the world-building, but that isn’t always sustainable for a story. Aspects also reminded me of Terry Pratchett, although I’d be hard pressed to say why. Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek tone that simultaneously wants the reader to care about character predicaments while jokes are being made. I’d recommend it for people that are interested in a wide variety of urban fantasy, those who want perspective on the genre, and fans of the time period.

Thank you to NetGalley and to Open Road Media for providing a review’s copy of this book

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

  1. Bookwraiths says:

    Having been a fan of Turtledove for many years, I thought of requesting this one from Netgalley, but held myself back, because I feared it would be a bit boring. Seems I was, at least, partially right about that feeling. Glad it ended on a high note for you though.

  2. neotiamat says:

    I went through a Turtledove phase when I was a teenager when I read every book of his I could get my hands on, including his ludicrously huge Alt-History series. I eventually fell out of love with him as an author, for roughly speaking the reasons you give here — his plotting has a marked tendency towards plodding, and he can be fumble-fingered with his politics (I don’t think of him as malicious in the way that I do someone like Correia, but Turtledove often deals with very serious issues in his writing — slavery or the Holocaust — and not always terribly gracefully). He also had a tendency towards truly absurd doorstopper series, to the point where his two main Alternate History series clocked in at something like a 7 to 10 books each, and each book is 500 pages.

    Still, he does have some very good points. His characters are interesting and memorable, his world-building is marvelous and rigorous (the Toxic Spell Dump is perhaps not his best example for world-building, as it’s much more “jokey” than his usual work), and he’s really the best author I know at juggling ten plot threads at the same time.

    His best work, I feel, is the Videssos books (Turtledove has a PhD in Byzantine history, and Videssos is a kind of alternate-history Byzantium), and he has some very good one-off books — I’m personally very fond of Every Inch a King (much quicker and lighter than his regular run of books, though it’s not exactly the most politically correct book — it’s a guilty pleasure read for me).

    • thebookgator says:

      This was my first Turtledove, so it is interesting to know that some of the same characteristics carry across more of his writing. I agree, while I do admire Turtledove’s willingness to deal with race/economics/ immigration/ etc and not whitewash his stories, it did not seem malicious, although it did seem awkward in places. I agree, characters are well-rounded. One GR review complained that David was not more angst-ridden over a certain issue, but I thought it actually demonstrated a more adult emotional perspective. I do like complicated plot threads, but tend to be less enthusiastic about historical fantasies (guy kay seems to be my only exception to this). Thank you for sharing your experience with him!

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