Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

23213197Ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief, Alix—better known now as Owl—has one rule. No supernatural jobs. Ever. Until she crosses paths with Mr. Kurosawa, a red dragon who owns and runs the Japanese Circus Casino in Las Vegas. He insists Owl retrieve an artifact stolen three thousand years ago, and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: he’ll get rid of a pack of vampires that want her dead. A dragon is about the only entity on the planet that can deliver on Owl’s vampire problem – and let’s face it, dragons are known to eat the odd thief.

Owl retraces the steps of Mr. Kurosawa’s ancient thief from Japan to Bali with the help of her best friend, Nadya, and an attractive mercenary. As it turns out though, finding the scroll is the least of her worries. When she figures out one of Mr. Kurosawa’s trusted advisors is orchestrating a plan to use a weapon powerful enough to wipe out a city, things go to hell in a hand basket fast…and Owl has to pick sides.

Have you ever gone to a really great “popcorn blockbuster” movie, and exited the theatre with that wide perms-grin on your face? Ridden a roller coaster and immediately wanted to get back on for more? If you have, then you know exactly how I felt when I finished Owl and the Japanese Circus recently. Part “Indiana Jane”, part Lara Croft, part ancient mystic supernatural thriller, this was a total roller coaster of a book, complete with fantastic action and adventure and storytelling – and a pretty awesome cat sidekick.

Owl is a complicated character. When we first meet her, she is living off the grid, completing mysterious artifact recovery jobs for slightly unsavoury characters. It soon becomes clear that Owl is actually hiding from vampires – Parisian vampires, mind you – and she’s an antiquities thief. While she may have a hard-and-fast rule about not accepting supernatural jobs (how do you think she ended up being chased by vampires?) and she’s soon drawn into an agreement with Mr. Kurosawa, who runs the Japanese Circus casino. Dragons running Vegas? Supernaturals living among us? I can totally buy into that.

I like Owl; she fits the convention of the Urban Fantasy heroine in that she’s a smart-aleck loner with trust issues, is as smart and snarky as anything, and has very handy friends. She has no filter and no sense of self-preservation, and she ends up repeatedly battered and beaten throughout the novel (and with only one exception, she stays hurt, which is a nice change). The author has said in interviews that Owl is 100% human, and I SO appreciate that a female UF heroine can not only get by but also succeed without any supernatural powers. There’s some good character growth for Owl over the course of this book; a good thing, as her continued default setting of not coming clean with the few friends she has might have worn a bit thin over the course of the story. In order for Owl to really come into her own, she needed to recognize her strengths and weaknesses, and her friends are definitely on the strengths side of things.

The secondary characters are also well-drawn; I liked Nadya, and hope that she plays a significant role in future storylines; there’s a history there that will be interesting to explore. Ryan remains a bit of an enigma for me, as his past holds more than he’s letting on, and I can see that causing problems in the future. Mr. Kurosawa is also a personal favourite. We all imagine that our boss is dragon in some form; imagine if that was really the case!?! In terms of villains, there are certainly enough to choose from in this book, and you quickly understand why Owl really doesn’t trust people in her life. While some might find the deus ex machina moments in certain scenes to be a little much, I thought that these events fit in with the supernatural world that Owl was desperately trying to avoid.

Probably the best part for me involved the use of a variety of diverse supernatural forces. I really loved how the Nagi were brought into play from Balinese history and how Captain was a Mau cat – an extension of the Egyptian belief of cats as defenders of the underworld. Much like “Mouse” in the Jim Butcher novels, Captain is a more than the sum of his parts, but a worthy companion for Owl and one that holds his own in battle. I think that there are some neat twists to the vampire lore in Charish’s narrative, and I enjoyed the different take on vampires.

I’m not a huge online RPG gamer – living in the country with dodgy internet will do that to you – but I appreciated how Owl used her time in the game to settle her mind, and to work through real-life problems in an abstract form. I had my suspicions about her online buddies throughout the novel, but (spoilers!) there’s a nifty twist at the end that leaves you ready for book two. I’ll be interested in seeing how much of the online gaming makes it into the next book, and if it has the same soothing effect on Owl.

Ultimately, though, this is a fantastically fun book to read. I really enjoyed reading it, because it pressed all the right buttons for me at the right time in my reading cycle. As I was coming off of some pretty heavy books, I knew that I wanted something that was smart, fun and that would keep me engaged, and this book fit the bill perfectly. Fans of Laura Croft, Indiana Jones, Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher will definitely enjoy this first book in the series.

Owl and the Japanese Circus was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review. It is available now from your favourite indie bookseller or from other fine print and digital retailers. ISBN: 9781476794990, 432 pages.