There’s something ineluctably old-fashioned about Katharine Kerr’s License to Ensorcell, as though this urban fantasy – ostensibly set in contemporary San Francisco – aside from the existence of mobile phones, could belong to a world two decades and more in the past. The main character, Nola O’Grady, is a psychic agent for a secret government agency dedicated to maintaining the balance between the (reified) forces of Chaos and Order.
The novel’s old-fashioned sensibility becomes apparent early on, when it is revealed that Nola’s cover identity in San Francisco is as secretary to the non-existent boss of a fake marketing and market research firm. Leading to two issues: a) if the boss doesn’t exist, why shouldn’t Nola be her own boss? and b) market research is Big Business, and that business seems to be dominated by giants, their subsidiary offices, and a whole lot of people working freelance – a two-person office, unless it’s particularly specialised, seems a touch out of place. How Nola thinks about herself, her world, and her oddly-talented family, too, doesn’t seem quite right for a person from about my generation, American or otherwise. To take an example: she thinks of her body and her figure in terms of staying fashionable – be a mate and let me know if anyone under forty still thinks in those terms?
There are other markers of an old-fashioned sensibility. Most of them rather problematic.
Her Agency – which the text regards without even the hint of the possibility of cynicism over the American government having oversight of an agency filled with people who can mess with other people’s minds – sends her an Israeli Interpol agent, one Ari Nathan, on the trail of a murderer, with orders to assist him. The string of murders turns out to have included Nola’s deceased brother Patrick, a very religious werewolf – and then things get complicated when her youngest brother disappears.
Nathan is clearly intended to be the novel’s love interest. The text regards this as perfectly natural. But his relationship with Nola is littered with ignored boundaries: he bullies her about her eating habits, insists on staying in her apartment in order to “protect” her – and takes her keys while she sleeps, locks her in, and gets his own copies cut, but that’s just fine because he’s pretty and he has good intentions. (He also assumes she’s going to move to Tel Aviv and live with him, once they’ve slept together once.) It’s basically the Asshole Werewolf Boyfriend dynamic, except that Nola doesn’t seem to see much wrong with it, and Ari Nathan is a normal human man, so it’s your bog-standard Controlling Asshole Potential Abuser flashing-light signs. (Run away! Run away!)
The rest of the book might be mildly interesting, but I can’t get past that. I really, really can’t.