Urban Fantasy without the Tropes: Jacqueline Carey’s Poison Fruit

Jacqueline Carey is best known for her lush and sprawling epic fantasies, begun in 2001 with Kushiel’s Dart. But her most recent trilogy—of which Poison Fruit is the final instalment—takes place in a slightly more mundane setting, a small township in middle America.

The town of Pemkowet is one of the few locations home to an active underworld—a place claimed as home by a god from one of the lesser pantheons. For Pemkowet, that god is Hel, goddess of the Norse land of the dead, and Pemkowet profits by the association, for its tourist board advertises the presence of magical beings as a visitor attraction. (Fairies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and all manner of other creatures make Pemkowet their home.)

Daisy Johanssen is Hel’s liaison with Pemkowet’s mortal authorities. She’s the daughter of a demon and an innocent mortal woman, and has no magical talents of her own—nor will she ever have, unless she claims her heritage from her father, an act which could bring about the end of the world.

Spoilers ahead!

As the novel opens, Daisy’s dealing with the routine of her dayjob, as a night hag is preying on Pemkowet’s citizens, and that’s up to her to handle. And dealing, too, with her slightly awkward relationship with Officer Cody Fairfax, her partner on the job. Daisy and Cody like each other rather too well, but Cody’s a werewolf, and has to settle down with his own kind. There’s also another man in Daisy’s life, the leader of the local ghoul community/biker gang Stefan, a person several hundred years old who feeds on emotions. Meanwhile, Daisy’s best friend Jen is dating the local slightly-paranoid geek and suffering from class anxiety, while her ex-boyfriend (and still good friend) has started a relationship with Daisy’s high school nemesis and present head of publicity for Pemkowet’s tourist bureau that makes Daisy fairly uncomfortable.

But the events of Autumn Bones’ climax have consequences. A mysterious concern, fronted by a hellspawn lawyer, had been buying up property in the Pemkowet area, particularly around the surface entrance to Hel’s domain. Now that same lawyer has reappeared, fronting a class action suit against the town of Pemkowet for injury and damages. A class action suit that, when the judge decides against the town, causes municipal bankruptcy and leaves Pemkowet vulnerable to the wiles of a goddess who wants to stage a hostile takeover on Hel’s patch. Pemkowet’s magical loyalists must line up for an almost certainly futile desperate last stand. If they’re to have any chance of success, Daisy must claim her power—and bargain with Powers and Dominions for Pemkowet’s future.

Throughout this trilogy, Carey has undermined many of the standard tropes and types of urban fantasy. Her characters discuss their relationships and their boundaries like adults, and sympathetic characters respect those boundaries—and apologise for transgressing them through accident, carelessness, or ill-conceived purpose. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to Daisy’s relationship with Stefan, which could easily have fallen into a tired, stale, sexy (emotional) vampire pattern and instead does something much more interesting. Daisy, too, unlike many female urban fantasy protagonists, is surrounded by well-drawn, interesting, sympathetic women: from her mother to her best friend, from her former high school nemesis to Lurine, Daisy’s friend and a powerful mythological being in her own right. In subtle, understated ways, Poison Fruit is a novel about friendship and loyalty, about choices and negotiations, and putting it on the line for the people that you care about.

Poison Fruit forms an interesting, satisfying conclusion to the trilogy’s arc. At times the pacing lags, but the characterisation never does. It’s not doing anything startlingly new, but what it is doing, it does very well. I enjoyed Poison Fruit as much as I enjoyed its predecessors: they’re all definitely worth a look.

Poison Fruit is available now from Roc.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.


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