The Enchantment Emporium (Tanya Huff)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
The Enchantment Emporium is a female-centric contemporary urban fantasy novel with a smattering of disturbing sex and mild violence.  I’m a little conflicted about how to rate this novel because, while it is imaginative and decently written, I also found it to be disturbingly sexist in a way that made me uncomfortable.  Quite a bit of content in the novel made me uncomfortable actually, from sex with cousins being a common occurrence to the protagonist’s family basically claiming, then “owning” people at their whims.  The setting is quite unique, even though the author uses a lot of common urban fantasy elements.  The plotting is fairly straightforward but wasn’t especially predictable and didn’t drag anywhere significantly.  The characters were a bit weak, but distinct enough that you at least felt like they had a personality, with the exception of the love interest.  I really can’t think of anything that had a similar feel to the one depicted in The Enchantment Emporium and that is for me a very good thing in a genre that is supposed to be about imagination and escapism.  In the end, I decided that this is one of the better more female oriented urban fantasy books I have read, and the fact that it made me uncomfortable probably broadened my horizons and at least gave me some things to think about, so I would recommend this book to urban fantasy fans but would forewarn them that their might be some disturbing elements.

Greater Detail:
Alysha Gale is part of an odd supernatural family that the author probably intends to be intriguing and mysterious but which came off as bit of a creepy sex cult to me.  After the completion of an important magical ritual, Alysha is summoned away from the family enclave all the way to Calgary by a letter from her grandmother instructing her to take over the running of her junk shop.  Once there, Alysha attempts to investigate the disappearance of her grandmother and uncovers a threat to the world itself that only she can stop.

While I still find it objectionable, and the fact that it is so common hurts both the sci-fi and fantasy genres, I’m fairly inured at this point to “standard” sexism of women as vacuous sex objects in male dominated power fantasies or men being portrayed as bland sex drones without any motivation or personality other than wanting to get with the protagonist in bad fantasy or sci-fi romance hybrids, but The Enchantment Emporium goes a completely different direction.  It is at its core a fantasy/romance hybrid, and the male characters are horribly bland, lust-filled sex puppets put there for the amusement of the protagonist, but the protagonist herself is far from the spunky, self-realized female lead I’m used to and instead gains all her agency and power from stereotypical female roles.  Instead of the muscular male barbarian chopping off heads to exert his mastery over his environment, this female protagonist asserts her dominance through sleeping with guys and baking.  I’m not against baking by any means, but to reduce all of a woman’s attempts to exert their control over their environment to either romping in the bedroom or baking in the kitchen seems fairly offensive to me.

Honestly, I must confess that in general I find the urban fantasy genre somewhat uninteresting, so it is hard for me to untangle my dislike of a particular book from a dislike of the conventions of the genre at large.  The concept of all sorts of magical things secretly happening that the general populace is unaware of seems very unlikely to me, a contemporary setting is so familiar that it’s hard to write characters that don’t come off as constantly making poor decisions given that they operate under such familiar rule sets, introducing compelling and interesting non-magical characters is very difficult, so you usually end up with an everyman protagonist alongside an entirely magical supporting cast with the “real” world only supplying the occasional minor obstacle, and a modern setting seems a bit like a lazy way of having to do very little world building and thinking through the ramifications of a melding of the mythic with the mundane.  The Enchantment Emporium sidesteps most of these issues I have with the genre, at least to some extent, which I guess is admirable and makes it one of the better things I’ve read in the genre.

Even though I was somewhat offended by some the premises of the setting, I actually have to recommend the book as a read for urban fantasy fans overall due to its creativity, imagination, good storytelling, and characters that are decently fleshed out even if they are somewhat uninteresting.  There seems to be some expectation on the author’s part that she can titillate the reader with her heroine’s sexual exploits, but the creepy cousin-bedding sex cult vibe made that impossible for me, so I really wouldn’t advise anyone to pick up this book expecting to be excited in that way unless you have some very specific fetishes.  Ultimately, any book that challenges my preconceptions and makes me analyze my own beliefs is something valuable and I am glad I read The Enchantment Emporium for that reason.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
For urban fantasy I prefer something more character rather than relationship driven, such as Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series starting with Child of Fire or something more surreal such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

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Posted in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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