by: Elliott James
Series: The Pax Arcana
Way back in the day, James’ debut Charming was the third review ever published on the Speculative Post. With 4.5 stars, you can be sure I was waiting for the sequel. While Daring came out back in September, it’s taken me a while to get my hands on a copy at the same time as I’ve had time to read it. (Silly real life. Everyone knows it’s the books that are important! Right?) Overall, Daring was worth the wait, and is a solid second step in a new Urban Fantasy that has all the right things going for it.
Something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin. Werewolf packs are being united and absorbed into an army of super soldiers by a mysterious figure who speaks like an angel and fights like a demon. And every Knight Templar—keepers of the magical peace between mankind and magickind—who tries to get close to this big bad wolf winds up dead. No knight can infiltrate a group whose members can smell a human from a mile away...no knight except one. John Charming. Ex knight. Current werewolf. Hunted by the men who trained him, he now might be their only salvation. But animal instincts are rising up to claim John more powerfully than ever before, and he must decide if this new leader of wolves is a madman...or a messiah. Daring is the second novel in an urban fantasy series which gives a new twist to the Prince Charming tale.
I haven’t had a chance on The Speculative Post yet to review two books in a series yet with those books read with significant amounts of time between them (though I think Dan has done so a few times now). I’m finding it interesting to go back and look through what I wrote a little over two years ago and compare Daring to Charming.
One of the standout differences between the two books is the characterizations in them. I noted that Charming had some extensive characterization happening in it, even for the side characters. There is a significant amount of that missing in Daring, though in its defense this is largely because so many of the characters in the book are transient. John is the only character who’s with us from the beginning of the book to the end, and while he gets a lot of attention from James in the characterization department, the secondary characters either are only around for a small amount of time or they are in and out of the story. So while we meet a major figure in the Knights Templar, and he’ll be important as the series continues, we meet him, then leave him behind for the majority of the book, and then touch base with him at the end. There’s not a whole lot of time for characterization to be built there.
What Daring really sets out to accomplish is to give John Charming an expanded backstory, and to explore what it means to be a werewolf in this particular version of urban fantasy. In Charming, James gave us the cliff notes version of John’s backstory. Just what was immediately useful to know about someone who has lived roughly seventy years of life. Here, James has taken the time to go back and fill in some blanks on John’s childhood within the Knights Templar, which was nice. The way this was done was deft, interesting, and told the reader as much about the Templars as it did about John Charming. Now the Knights aren’t nameless, faceless monsters under the bed, but people who have reasons for doing the things they do.
It seems like every urban fantasy feels the need to use vampires and werewolves. With the genre so crowded these days, it’s important that authors either go for well-built uniqueness, or standard classics. (I.E. no sparking vampires!!!) James has gone for standard classic in the werewolf venue. His details will differ slightly from genre standouts like Briggs, Vaughn, or Hamilton but there’re no real surprises here. What’s most interesting about James’ version of lycanthropy is that he’s changed the group dynamic around and devalued it somewhat in comparison to what other authors have been doing. Rather than having werewolves form rigid packs with a strong emphasis on alpha as dominant and stronger (rather than smarter or just more useful to have around), James has played up the more human aspects of his werewolves so that the societies they build resemble human culture rather than how many people think a pack of natural wolves functions.
Overall, Daring is a good second novel, but does show the highlights of a typical second novel after the debut has been greenlighted for a series. James does some of the worldbuilding necessary to support a larger series, and gives John the time and space to become a healthier person (Hamilton should take notes). However, Daring is for the most part a stepping stone on the way from here to there. It’s not a showstopper of a book, but it is a solid entry into a series that has the potential to become a byword in the genre on the level of Brigg’s Mercy Thompson or Butcher’s The Dresden Files. The pieces are all there, we’re just waiting for James to pick up steam and get enough books out to gain critical mass.