Tanya Huff. The Enchantment Emporium (DAW Books 2009);
The Wild Ways (DAW Books 2011).
In The Enchantment Emporium & the books that will follow it, Tanya Huff has created an extended family of very powerful mages (witches, then, if we assume witches can be much more powerful than usually represented), who have power, are drawn to power (usually within the family, where about 5 girls are born for every Gale boy), & ‘the aunts’ are the most powerful & interfering of all. Gale girls are attracted to power, which definitely includes Gale boys, & the aunts take care to make sure that fertile unions are kept far enough apart, but usually within the family (although the protagonist’s father is one of the rare outsiders). All this is part of a complex background which the she introduces slyly & unobtrusively throughout the narrative.
Set in the present, The Enchantment Emporium begins in media res, so to speak, in the small Ontario town where most of the family has lived for some time. Its major protagonist, Alysha Catherine Gale, has just lost her position at the Royal Ontario Museum & is at loose ends when she receives a letter informing her that if it has reached her, her ‘wild’ grandmother, Catherine, is dead & has deeded her little shop in Calgary to her. So off she goes, in the usual Gale manner (finding herself moved up into Business Class, sensing something going on during her trip into town from the airport, meeting the leprechaun who helped out around the store, which contains some rather odd items, & then falling hard for the reporter for a small weekly paper who comes to interview her grandmother & finds her there instead).
And so the convoluted & precisely extraordinary plot thickens. Calgary, it seems, is a new centre of power in Canada, & so it seems some Gales may be needed there. What with the dragons circling overhead (who should not have come through from the ‘UnderRealm’), a sorcerer in town seeking to gather that Calgary power to himself, & with his own assassin, & Allie’s favorite cousin, the ever traveling Charlie, finding it very hard to make it through ‘the Wood’ to Calgary, something strange is going on. And Gales tend to want to take care of strange, unless it’s theirs.
Allie wants to show she can handle things on her own, without bringing in the aunts (whom both the sorcerer & the Dragon Lords fear, with good reason), but eventually things get too hot, what with an angry Dragon Queen threatening an apocalyptic razing of Calgary (& maybe all of Alberta, for starters) as she seeks her son, who turns out to be the sorcerer’s son as well, & the whole family gets involved. Yet Allie turns out to be the new central force in the confrontation. Huff constructs a sharp & complex plot, using limited third person POV to push the narrative forward while deepening her characterizations of the various protagonists, of which Allie is the central figure, but Charlie & the man of complexly divided loyalties, Graham, are both important. All the varied events & actions move toward a conclusive confrontation, & it happens, spectacularly, but then Huff adds an unexpected twist that both underlines Allie’s new power in her family & sets the stage for sequels, of which The Wild Ways is the first.
To be clear, Tanya Huff writes entertainments, but she does do with energy, wit, & a lively insouciance about her characters’ powers in novels like The Enchantment Emporium & its follow-up. Which owes something to her early stories in Stealing Magic about Magdeline, the world’s most powerful & laziest sorcerer: here the Gale family has loads of power but tends to just keep it & play with it (oh, & use it casually to keep their town or ‘city and everyone in it anticipating [their] needs.’. But they know the dangers of power corrupting, in others at least, & will act decisively to prevent others, especially sorcerers, from misusing it. Also, the aunts are very nosy, gossipy, & like to bother & intrude on the lives of the younger family members, which makes for interesting family dynamics. One thing Huff does especially well is just assume the power works & from the POV of the witches (or whatever we might call them) it does, so no explanations, & especially no info-dumps, just action, or acts presented with an insouciant grin, as, in these books, is the somewhat polymorphous sexuality of her protagonists & their extended family. What that means is The Enchantment Emporium is just great fun, with a dollop of that inclusive morality that we’d all like to think marks the Canadian character.
If The Enchantment Emporium is Allie’s story, The Wild Ways is Charlie the musician’s. And that wild grandmother/aunt, Catherine, is the catalyst once again, sowing chaos & damage, but for what she thinks are good reasons, at least good from the perspective of the Gale family, who we already know don’t want to use their power to take over the world or anything like that but who will defend the family, as each of them defines it, when it’s endangered. Charlie is another wild one, but she has enjoyed living as an itinerant musician, using minor charms sometimes to get a crowd onside, & entering the music as far as her magic will take her.
As The Wild Ways begins, she finds herself called to Nova Scotia to rejoin a Celtic band about to tour the summer festivals there; it seems there must be a reason for this change of circumstances, but for quite awhile she cannot discover it. Meanwhile an oil company is betting everything on getting permission do offshore drilling near an island where seals breed — & Selkies, as Charlie soon discovers. Then it turns out that Catherine is working for the company & stealing the Selkies’ sealskins to get them to stop their powerful environmental group’s protests. As one of the Selkies is the lover of the band’s fiddler, Charlie gets involved, & the tension ratchets up from there. Why is Catherine doing this? What role will Jack, the Dragon Prince/sorcerer/Gale boy, play? How dangerous is the wild power, & does Charlie really have it? Can she be trusted to use it well?
Huff has once again constructed a delightfully complex plot, with real ecological & moral substance. She delves into the workings of the festival circuit, the lives of musicians on the road, the politics of oil & the inner workings of upper echelons of big business, the reasons someone smart & driven might work for such business, & the various family tensions surrounding members who are still young (Jack is 14, but because of his life as a young dragon surviving in the UnderRealm may know more about power dynamics among the elder & the younger in a family than Charlie, who thinks she knows a lot), & handles all thee various strands of her narrative with élan. In the end, Charlie rises to the challenge not only of her Aunt Catherine, but of what Catherine foresaw (her special power) & feared so much she was willing to break any number of laws & family rules to prevent. The Wild Ways is a fitting sequel to The Enchantment Emporium, & whets my appetite for more of the Gale charm. Highly entertaining, just as it’s meant to be.