Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ill Wind

I was a little suspicious of Jim Butcher's recommendation at first, since the last thing I read with his stamp of approval on it was the frankly disappointing Child of Fire, but I really couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 4 stars
Length: A hair on the short side of average (337 pages)
Publication: December 2, 2003 from Roc Books
Premise: Joanne Baldwin is a Weather Warden, able to control air and water to tame storms before they cause massive death and destruction. She's always been nervous about having more power than the other Wardens would like, but now she's taking the fall for the death of another Warden. Being caught will mean the removal of her powers....but explaining exactly what happened will mean her death for carrying a Demon Mark. Her only hope for clean survival is Lewis, a powerful Warden who's been on the run for years himself and isn't exactly easy to find. The other Wardens are closing in, she doesn't know who to trust, and no matter where she goes, there's a storm (yes, a literal one) coming for her.
Warnings: One magical attack that feels very much like violation.
Recommendation: If you think that you're going to scream at the sight of just one more werewolf or vampire or magical detective story, definitely give this one a try. It can get a touch wobbly in places, but it's delightful fun and the heroine feels like an honest-to-god real person; I'm going back for seconds when I have time. 

Why this one really feels like a change in the weather: 

Yes, this one is nearly a decade old by now (of course my reading list isn't backed up so thoroughly, why do you ask?), but it feels new in a way that lot of cutting-edge urban fantasy really doesn't. The genre is packed with vampires, werewolves, Fae, people who are the last of their magical kind, shapeshifters, lone warriors, and the like: often, that's a great thing because if gives the magical universe in question a sense of possibility and diversity. Other books, like Red Hot Fury, feel cluttered because all the creatures jostle against each other and start to feel made up for the convenience of the moment. Caine cuts through all of that and reduces the extraordinary groups to two: Wardens and their Djinn. Wardens have the power to help tame the earth's more violent forces, bringing massive natural disasters into more manageable forms to mitigate the loss of life. Earth Wardens can control the earth, from plants to tectonic forces; Fire Wardens can tame or grow fires; and Weather Wardens like Joanna control air and water to tame storms into gentler rainfall. Not every intervention can result in perfect weather or the balance would be upset, but Wardens help solve problems like disasters that have gained the size to become sentient and amplify their own damage.

This system of magic feels real and works in a way that shows the thought Caine has put into it; the applications of the fairly elemental magic go far beyond the normal ones of setting people on fire, throwing rocks, or trying to summon lightning. Weather Wardens can pull all the oxygen out of the air surrounding a person to make him or her collapse, and I was quite impressed to see one Earth Warden reduce normal soil to dirt so fine that it was nearly frictionless, capable of pulling someone down to drown just as surely as he or she would in water. Each Warden goes through years of training in their respective program, mapping weather systems and testing out the science behind each step. That scientific training shows each and every time Joanne attempts a weather intervention, and it never sounds anything but dangerously real; Caine really did her homework here. I was disappointed to not see more about Fire Wardens, since their gifts seem to have a narrower scope of application; perhaps it shows up in future books. Most closely related to the Fire Wardens are perhaps the Djinn, who are creatures of fire themselves.

The Djinn are poorly understood; the Wardens know that they are immortal and follow certain rules that bind them to human masters, but that's only enough to make them cautious about phrasing their commands. One legendary Warden commented that Djinn hate humans and will fight for some hidden advantage or loophole in every scrap of power they give and speak in cryptic riddles, illustrating that Wardens are grateful for the extra power but want to keep it on a short leash. The Djinn don't seem to be outright abused, but they are unquestionably enslaved in their bottles and passed from one master to another as the World Council of Warden sees fit. Joanne at one point compares them to the perk of having a company car, and the casual absence of the idea that the Djinn deserve autonomy or much respect backs up that assessment. Normal imprisoned Djinns are immense power batteries, supporting a Warden's more dangerous interventions, while unclaimed Djinn (rare to the point of being unheard-of) have a set of quasi-Warden powers and a limited ability to disguise themselves as humans, as Joanne eventually finds out.

Joanne herself is written beautifully well, striking almost no false notes. The occasional "hello!" or "news flash" makes it feel like Joanne is trying to be a trendy middle-schooler, but those moments are few enough to fit on one hand. The rest of the time, she works quite well, managing to plot a cross-country escape one moment and be satisfied about finding purple velvet clothes at an outlet mall the next. The flashbacks demonstrate that most major moments of her life have been accompanied by rain and violent storms; on some level she loves it, but she also knows enough to be afraid and can't find normality when she wants it. She deals with these obstacles like an adult instead of flinging herself down in a fit of petulance; her long-range plans don't exist because she doesn't expect to live to see them, which is understandable, and she's running on denial to avoid reliving the event that made her a fugitive.

Running from the Wardens she's supposed to be able to trust is hard, so she turns to her classic Mustang and small consolations like pancakes or a sack of purple clothes to make herself feel better. It's an entirely realistic set of coping mechanisms, steering away from making her a rabid stress-eater or a whiny fashionista; she also manages to have a few men in her past without being the sexy one who's simply too much woman for anyone to handle. Joanna has nuance, not just one or two flaws on a checklist, and it really works. Some of the minor characters are the same way; healers can end up killing other Wardens in the process of trying remove their powers while still being decent people, and a few friends are caught between helping her and obeying magical law because they know that if she goes rogue that people will die. On a related note, it was refreshing to not see a conspiracy in the World Council. Individual Warden are corrupt or resentful for their own reasons, and corrupting forces certainly run through the story, but there is no secret and stupidly predictable plot from within to bring forth evil or to kill Joanna out of jealousy. At any rate, that realism helps set Joanna, and the world as a whole, on a firmly realistic footing.

Similarly, David works as far more than your typical urban fantasy love interest. I cannot tell you how delighted I was when Joanna saw an attractive hitchhiker instead of the unfading love of her life or the sexiest person in the history of people. The idea of a one true love is older than dirt, but this genre has a really annoying habit of having boy meet girl to a surge of sparks, blushing, possibly dislike, heat in the loins, page-long description of body and clothes, and then a really tiresome sequence of spatting and/or googly eyes until the inevitable sex scene and declarations of love. But no! Caine has written a hot, exasperating hitchhiker who likes reading, checking out Joanne, and being a seriously cryptic pain in the butt. He's a person, one with his own concern and agenda; some of it centers on protecting Joanne, but he's also his own agent and not interested in handing over information that he doesn't need to share. Joanne and he often negotiate this by shouting, but it comes off as each urgently wanting the other to be okay when there isn't a good way for that to happen for both of them.

Their relationship balances well with the overarching tension. Joanne spends the whole book on the run, with her money dwindling as she suffers that most common affliction of protagonists in this genre: frayed nerves from days without sleep. The Wardens are hunting her, and they're unintentionally aided by a storm that has its own agenda; it has gained the size to become sentient and is bent on destroying her by throwing lightning or tornadoes at her. As the Demon Mark both torments her and amplifies her existing powers past the point where the Wardens can easily overwhelm her, the storm remains an intimidating opponent. So is the more human villain, who I didn't see coming for quite a while; I still called it before Joanne did, but it's always hard to foreshadow that sort of thing without showing it to the reader while the distracted main character recovers from immediate peril and catches up. It's hard to make a cross-country chase scene exciting for a whole book, but having both humans and an enormous storm on the trail really accomplishes that with style.

The red pen: 

Most of the narrative is smoothly paced, not slowing enough to let you get bored, but it's also peppered with flashbacks. Some of them, like Joanna's initial testing for Warden powers or scenes from her early childhood, are powerful and moving; other seem to exist simply to put forth some backstory and don't have good transitions. Hearing her talk to a friend and then muse about how they met works just fine, but moving from making plans in a diner to "I don't suppose anybody ever forgets how they lose their virginity" just feels abrupt and choppy, even if the following scene is actually plot-relevant character background, erotic without wallowing in pointless sex, and actually quite a good little segment. Flashbacks that just rise up out of nowhere do a disservice to the plot; having arisen for no apparent reason, they vanish equally quickly, making whatever follows seem just a touch off-balance. In a book with worse writing I wouldn't notice, but this one is so very good most of the time that the awkward flashbacks start to seem like filler, and even the good ones can create slow spots.

The same problem of near-filler applies when Joanne runs into other Wardens who are trying to hunt her....specifically, the same Warden with two sidekicks over and over. They run into each other, fail to have a meaningful conversation (seriously, at no point will either of them ask a question to approach the situation from a different angle?) and then race off again after some posturing and attempted fighting. It's dull, and the way Joanna has another spin on that very same dysfunctional conversation with another Warden earlier in the book makes both of these characters, who are interesting and want to help in different ways without having all the facts, seem less like vivid people and more like roadblocks who happen to know how to talk. No book this tightly paced needs to recycle tones or situations that way, and it got to the point where I'd think "there's that car again, resist the urge to skim the next ten pages to find something more interesting."

Those problems aside, the book has the odd dynamic of making Joanne herself seem conflicted and fairly noble while making some of her actions frustrating and inexplicable. This hits its peak when the situation becomes "all right, if you don't take the following action, then the enemy will seize that advantage and the person you love will please take that action now." She doesn't, sticking to the same stubborn defense that she has for most of the book, but the situation has changed: before, only her life was on the line if she didn't act, but now that inaction also hurts others and hands her enemy a new and horrible weapon. It comes off as unthinking, verging on outright childish, and really feels like a heavy-handed way to make sure that all the characters have assumed their places for the culmination. That climax is great apart from a really tiresome villain speech, in Caine's defense, but the buildup could have been more streamlined and less maddeningly nonsensical.

The same "but why couldn't you just do it this way?" problem also applies to one Djinn of uncertain ownership who's been passing Joanne information. She makes vague references to rules and the way things have always been done, but she persists in giving Joanne advice ranging from cryptic rambling to direct orders to turn the car around and go the other way, all without explaining why. There's no logic to it, no reason for Joanne to trust a member of a notoriously untrustworthy species, and the Djinn shows up in the seat long enough to mock, order, and brood before vanishing away again. Even a quick "my master ordered me not to tell you" or "that wouldn't be in his best interests, and you want his best interests because he's Friend X, please listen" could have done wonders for the tension in those moments. Some of that lack of reason flashes up elsewhere: if Wardens aren't public knowledge to the humans, why are they comfortable blowing out all the glass windows in a hotel and throwing the shards at a parking lot filled with civilians, for example? Those moments can be distracting, but they're not long and they're not frequent. A little explanation of how Wardens work in the shadow of normal life wouldn't have gone amiss, especially since watching each fantasy author take a stab at explaining that is fun and can do a lot to explain how the resident magic users understand their place in the universe.

All in all, Ill Wind was delightfully fresh in the way it simply slid away from many of the tropes that tend to bog the genre down. It can get a little lost in all the flashbacks, but it always finds its way to the race against the Wardens, against the storm, and against time as the Demon Mark comes closer to destroying Joanne. Caine's done her research on weather, the magical system is beautifully streamlined, and this magical system feels like one that could actually slide under human radar, making it all the more interesting.

Prospects: The last Weather Warden book, Total Eclipse, came out in 2010. Caine has launched a spin-off series called Outcast Season, with the most recent book, Unbroken, being released last February.

Enjoyed this one? Try: 
~Kelly McCullough's Webmage series carries some of the same flavor of being on the run from the authorities while desperately trying to do the right thing, but the infusion of mythology also makes it very different. Check back in a month or so and I may have more suggestions. 
~Since we're dealing with Djinn here, I have to recommend Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy. It has stunningly good dynamics about power and risk between magicians and demons, especially for a YA novel, and the humor really makes it stand out.


  1. I read this book a while ago and I agree with the Laura's points. However, readers should know that, like many series, this series does have a tendency to decline throughout, unlike the Dresden Files.

    1. That's unfortunate; I had high hopes for the rest of them. Maybe I'll keep an eye out for her starting a series in a different world.