License to Ensorcell, by Katharine Kerr

License to Ensorcell, by Katharine Kerr book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Daw Books
Published: 2011
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Joshua Palmatier

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I read Katharine Kerr’s Daggerspell ages ago and intend to read her entire Deverry series. This is not part of the series. It’s the first book in an urban fantasy series featuring the character Nola O’Grady, and the second book is set to be released in the next week.

Here’s the set-up: Nola O’Grady works for the Agency, a government group that deals with anything that appears to be out of the ordinary in any given investigation. Nola herself–and pretty much everyone in her family–have powers. Nola is sort of a psychic–she can do mental “searches” for people, danger, etc. As part of the Agency, she’s working to restore Harmony to the world, so she doesn’t work for Chaos or Good, she seeks a balance between the two.

She’s been called back to her homework on San Francisco because there’s been recent reports of an upsurge in Chaos activity and she’s there to scope it out. In addition, someone has been killing people–including her brother, a werewolf–using silver bullets. A few of the murders in SF, but some internationally, specifically in Israel. Enter Ari Nathan, an Israeli agent who’s paired with her to figure out what’s going on with the silver bullet murders.

Since the UF field is so flooded now with books, it’s become a game of what’s different about each book coming out in the genre. So I figured I’d focus there. In this case, I think License to Ensorcell stands out for a few reasons.

One, the book has a much more international flavor to it, even though it’s all set in San Francisco. You get the sense that there is much more to the world, and that the evildoers are out there, everywhere. Most of the UF that I’ve read has felt rather . . . insular, all concentrated on one city, with no sense of the world at large and how the larger world WORKS with the introduction of the supernatural.

There certainly hasn’t been a UF book I’ve read that brings in governmental agencies and such as believably and completely as this one does. Nola has to file reports, has to justify her use of sorcery when she pulls out the big guns, etc, just like cops have to justify every shot fired that kills someone. This makes the book feel much more realistic than most.

Another reason this one stood out is that Nola O’Grady has lived with her powers for a long time, and is already firmly entrenched and comfortable with her powers. There isn’t any of the “discovery” of her powers and the trope plot line of being found and pulled into a larger organization or whatnot. She’s already there. All of that has happened already. She doesn’t fumble with her powers, or make “newbie” mistakes, and such.

I found this refreshing. And lastly, even though this featured werewolves, it turns out the plot isn’t really about that at all. That’s just what starts off the investigation, and as Nola’s original purpose (discovering why Chaos is in an upsurge) begins coinciding with the werewolf murders, a larger and different supernatural element comes into play. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling something, but this other factor was certainly interesting and I look forward to seeing what Kerr does with it in future novels.

So, a good book, with some interesting and different elements than some of the other urban fantasy out there. Certainly one of the more in depth at explaining how the supernatural elements have been incorporated into the rest of the world. I did feel that I wanted to connect a little more emotionally with Nola–she seemed withdrawn and distant–but this is Katharine Kerr’s style, based on my read of her other book. But the book was tight, meaning it didn’t feel loose or messy, with plot elements sort of happening for no reason, or anything like that. I’ll be looking for the sequel when it hits the shelves.

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