Owl is in trouble. Again. She’s incognito at an archaeological dig in Egypt and can’t escape a leering post-doc student long enough to steal a Medusa head from the tomb. To make matters worse, there’s an extra sarcophagus and a chamber half-full of water. This is only in the first few pages of Owl and the City of Angels, which continues at a breakneck pace. Her adventures will take her to Mr. Kurosawa’s casino, to visit the glitterati in Los Angeles and non-spoilery variety of other locations as Owl attempts to complete the Dragon’s assignments and save her skin.
Here’s my problem: I have a hard time separating my dislike for Owl from my feelings about the book. Owl, unfortunately, has not significantly developed from the previous book, Owl and the Japanese Circus. She’s a thief, and as far as I can tell, a mediocre one without redeeming personal qualities except sarcasm. She is full of contradictions: she’s always saying how she hates supernaturals, but works for a dragon because he can protect her from the vampires she’s angered. Despite her lucrative employment, she still continues to steal items for herself on his jobs. Yet, she refuses to take a side job for a friend who claims it is ‘life and death.’ We do see another side of her, during her ‘down time’ playing WorldQuest, a massive multiplayer on-line game. Yet, she’s a thief there and though she has a close partner, Carpe, she professes they have an understanding that each will abandon the other, or even steal from them. Oh, and she’s dating an incubus named Rynn (again, with her baseline suspicion of supernaturals), who shares a running joke where they call each other “whore” and “train wreck” (ha, ha). It’s clear she’s emotionally disengaged from almost everyone she should be close to, and displays suspicion and general quarrelsomeness when they frequently appear ready to help her out of friendship.
I’m not the only one who doesn’t like Owl. The IAA, who regulates archaeological digs and polices the supernatural world, is convinced she is behind a string of artifact thefts. The creators of her favorite game WorldQuest are considering booting her, tired of her using game information to achieve thefts in real life. Lady Siyu, her boss’ seneschal, hates her sass as well, although Lady’s naga identity might have something to do with it. For a thief, she’s also a terrible planner–in the initial scene, she mentions that she’s had so much trouble getting away from the postdoc that she’s ‘missed the jump in scrutiny’ by the guards, then when she’s running through the Egyptian streets dodging the IAA, she is amazed how good they have gotten since she left. Before stealing the Medusa she notes that she’s tripled the workload of her employer’s initial assignment, but not because it’s greedy–because its good time management and planning (so how did her planning miss the updated security?) I’m continually surprised how she seems barely competent, argumentative and impulsive and manages to pull any caper off at all.
The writing redeems the story. Focused on a fast moving, obstacle-filled plot, it competently describes event after event. Narrative is in first person; it feels colloquial with a tone appropriate to Owl’s voice. There’s the occasional slip-up when dealing with Owl, but it could be I’m primed for annoyance by her. For instance, in a chase scene she thinks, ‘no time for niceties,’ and then says ‘sorry,’ in Arabic. If that’s not common courtesy, I’m not sure what is.
World-building is fun, and the supernaturals are often a type not often seen. I like the idea of archaeological digs as a setting, although the concept of the IAA being a black-suited gun-toting force seems far-fetched. An event or two borders on the outrageous, but is fitting if you view this as a book as about the fast-moving challenges with continually elevating stakes. Although reviews frequently compare her to Indiana Jones, Jones has far more charm, and his rakish confidence grants him more leeway than I’m willing to give Owl. The character cast is generally fun, with all sorts of supernatural creatures and dastardly devices.
I have no doubt that the audience for Owl is out there. If she’d develop some redeeming qualities–loyalty, selflessness, charm, cleverness, ethics–really, any one of the above would work–I’d be counted among them.
my thanks to NetGalley and Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books for the advance copy.