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Embers by Laura Bickle

Capitalism is a wonderful thing. Invent a market and entrepreneurs pile in with product until no more can be sold. A classic example of this is the publishing industry which identifies niches and then relentlessly aims content at them. This is my first foray into what is politely called the paranormal romance wing of urban fantasy. My curiosity piqued, I delve into one of the books edited by the redoubtable Paula Guran for the Juno Books line out of Simon & Schuster, meeting a new female lead, a firefighter who now works the arson investigation side of the profession while moonlighting as a ghostbuster with a local group of specialists.

To conform to its stereotypes, the story must blend the reality of urban life with traditional fantasy, allowing the female lead an opportunity for romantic entanglement in a rite of passage to greater empowerment. For a preset number of reasons, she is likely to begin the novel lacking confidence in more or more aspects of her life, but she will gain strength and probably form a relationship on her own terms by the end of the book. She will have some kind of supernatural ability and this will enable her to perform her job more effectively. For the most part, these are career women in law-enforcement or similar work which has given them a basic training in self-defence or somehow equipped them with survival skills so that, when they confront supernatural or mythological creatures, they are likely to emerge relatively unscathed. Mostly written by women for women, they are expected to offer gentle rides rather than the gritty realism and more excessive violence left to the mainstream, male-oriented writers.

So, judging Embers by Laura Bickle on its own terms, we have the opportunity to see inside the Detroit Fire Department, giving us the urban setting. As a “lantern”, Anya Kalinczyk can see and talk with spirits. If one is causing problems, she can absorb it — one of the hooks of the story is speculation on what happens to these spirits after she or other lanterns consume them. She is protected by a salamander which, being unable to discriminate between the various levels of threat, also comes between her and would-be lovers. Finally and inevitably in a romance, there’s a “love” interest although Ms Bickle does slightly bend the rules. Because she is possessed by an ancient demoness, our heroine is pushed into sex with the “villain” before she can perfect the relationship with the Honest Joe. This “saves” the heroine from any moral responsibility for having lustful (unprotected) sex and cheating on her true love. It’s not her. It’s the demoness making her do it, OK. And it’s also a useful opportunity to learn how to corral the salamander so she can have uninterrupted sex with her true love later on.

The firefighting side of story reads with reasonable credibility and both the explicit and inexplicit discrimination against women in this male-dominated service is at least mentioned. The set-piece aggressive dismissal of her by the police liaison is clichéd, but we are at least partially in the real world with this more obvious misogyny. So, on that score, Ms Bickle is on target. The extensive ability to interact with ghosts is quite interesting. Rather than have some intermittent contact with unreliable spirits, these ghosts are willing to shout out warnings to her and do basic desk research for her. This overcomes one of the classic difficulties always encountered by lone-wolf heroines. How do you find reliable help if you do not trust the men around you?

But I find myself somewhat less impressed by the supernatural side. By a coincidence that would normally considered too far-fetched for modern fiction, two ancient beings last seen together in Babylon both happen to end up in Detroit. One is just generally malevolent but thinks on a very small scale, being content to corrupt and destroy people one-by-one. The other is prepared to consider levelling most of the city as an exercise in urban redevelopment. All city architects would benefit from help like this. You just acquire the title to all the relevant buildings and then have this being rise up and knock down all the city blocks. In this case, the site clearance would be without warning the people, but that’s a small detail to the city planner.

Well, perhaps there’s something wrong with me, but this is altogether too nice. Yes, there’s an element of personal revenge at work but, essentially, the major plot is all about rescuing the fabric of Detroit from the urban planning mistakes of the past and remaking it in a more beautiful form. In part, we are supposed to think the “villain” is more misguided than wicked. He was an artist and city architect, but a violent mugging left him seriously injured and disillusioned. With one eye now lost and his view of the world one-dimensional, he uses unorthodox methods to cut through the red tape of the city planning process. Indeed, arguably at the end, he does stop being a villain and becomes the essentially sensitive and lovable guy he once was. After all, if he really was evil to the core, our heroine could never find him attractive — even making allowances for the inconvenient demoness — that’s not the way the formula for these romances has to work. The fruit that would tempt her from her one true love must fall from the tree, but the fall is usually just a character flaw rather than personification of outright evil.

This leads me to a sad conclusion. There’s always a problem when a novel is announced as the first in a new series and, as is predictable, I never once thought our heroine was at risk. Although her Honest Joe is injured and in a coma for half the book, she has a team of supportive human and ghostly folk (and the salamander) to see her through to the end. This is not urban fantasy with a hard edge to threaten the heroine. This is the distaff version with everything smoothed over when all the right people get in the same room together and talk things through.

The cultural gap is just too wide for me to bridge. For once, my failure to match the gender and age demographic excludes me from finding satisfaction in the read. A further depressing factor as a reader is the rate at which US English is diverging from the rest of the world. I found myself flinching at some of the grammar. Ms Bickle offers us a more colloquial style of writing which emphasises rather than mitigates the linguistic differences. So, if you want an undemanding romance with a supernatural twist and a cute salamander, this is for you. I am not sufficiently interested to buy the next in the series which is apparently called Sparks.

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