Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova
Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova (a pseudonym of Melinda Snodgrass) (Tor, 2013) is the second urban fantasy to feature Linnet Ellery, a human lawyer employed by a vampire firm. Looking at that last sentence gives me a warm feeling. It’s always therapeutic to suggest firms of lawyers are blood-sucking vampires but, with this book having the urban fantasy label plastered on the shingle hung outside their office, this is meant literally. Werewolves and elves, who call themselves the Álfar, are also “real” and are, to a significant degree, integrated into human affairs. This takes us a step further than the Left Hand/Right Hand Magic by Nancy Collins in which a range of supernatural creatures are living among humans but their existence is largely ghettoised. Here some of the leading celebrities on the big screen are Álfar, their agents are werewolves and vampires draw up the contracts. To a great extent, this is life in the mainstream, but it’s not without its complications.
In our world, America has been built out of successive waves of immigration, but the pace has dwindled of late. Indeed, it would be fair to say America is less welcoming than it used to be and, in some quarters, actively hostile to newcomers. This is most obviously apparent in the failure of the so-called Dream Act to gain traction on Capitol Hill. Common sense says America should embrace the people already in the country, often doing the work local people refuse to do, paying taxes and sending their children to school. So this book has three different groups who live and work in human America. Obviously both vampires and werewolves used to be human. No-one is entirely sure who or what the Álfar are. But one thing is clear. These people are taking work from the “humans” and it’s time they were sent back where they came from. As a first step, a Humans First organisation is arguing for a racial law to prevent a marriage from being valid between a human and one of these “others”, cf the miscegenation laws in some US states, Nazi Germany, South Africa, etc. In other words, this book is actually a good vehicle for exploring attitudes between different groups and the pressures for positive discrimination laws to impose greater equality than the more extreme elements in human society prefers.
On the way to solving some interesting mystery puzzles about two Álfar accused of murder, we’ve got a formal arbitration which plays the legal niceties rather well. The question is pleasingly simple. When it comes to the process of casting a film, everyone puts on a show. They all want to impress during the audition. So if one group of actors can use a glamour to make themselves more attractive in face-to-face meetings with directors and producers, how qualitatively different is this from others having cosmetic surgery or corrective dentistry to make themselves look better? And then there’s the not so mythological use of the casting couch — exploitation, yes, but a price some are prepared to pay in their search for stardom and celebrity. Who’s to say what “tricks” people may play when the outcomes to the individuals involved are so important.
This is a book written by someone who has experience in Hollywood. It has a knowing quality about some of the descriptions of the characters and the places where “work” is done. So this is me reaching a fairly radical conclusion given all the dismissive things I’ve said about most of the urban fantasies I’ve read over the last couple of years. Looks around nervously and mops a brow suddenly beaded with sweat. This is highly enjoyable! There, I’ve said it. “But why?” you wail, having legitimately expected me to rip this to shreds? Well this is not your common or garden urban fantasy with a kick-ass female first-person narrator who dispatches supernatural beasties with a flick of her manicured hand while lusting platonically after some hunky male (of whatever race or species happens to be available). Box Office Poison is an excellent legal thriller that involves a range of supernatural and human people all working together to arrive at a just outcome, the American way. Ignore the crass label stuck on by the marketers. This is a superior book no matter what the cover art or blurb might otherwise suggest.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.