If you are wondering how this review is going to go, I am going to start with some preemptive qualifications on myself as a judge. That is obviously not a good way for a review to start.
Still, I think it’s important to keep these qualifications in mind as you read my review: I have read two Hunger Games books and six chapters of Twilight as part of an effort to explore some of the books my wife enjoys early in our marriage. My wife is in good company; those series have millions of fans. But she and I had to agree to disagree on this sort of YA fantasy (we’ll always have Harry Potter, love), as I found The Hunger Games trilogy too dull to finish and—as I said to my spouse—“I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than read another page of Twilight.”
Thus, let’s be clear that The Charismatics has lost the great Plinko game that is SPFBO’s judge selection process. The book advertises itself as appealing to fans of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Golden Compass, and after reading it I completely believe that assessment. Do you like those books? You might love The Charismatics. Do you hate those books? Me too.*
The Charismatics features Ambrose, a young Duchess trapped in a loveless marriage that’s never been consummated. She’s consoled by Roan, an invisible shape-shifting spirit animal that’s her only friend in the kingdom. Roan’s powers over the physical world are limited to minor manifestations and snarky commentary.
Ambrose must participate in her Duchess-ly duties regularly. Mostly said duties involve public speaking. Ambrose is the sort of good-hearted royal who doesn’t believe in royalty, and so gives away money and goods to the under-served poor just about every time she’s asked to speak. The villainous Senator Rafe and his nasty aristocrats hate that. Does that stop them from asking her to speak again? Of course not.
Ambrose also keeps slipping away from the upper-class scene. Usually when she does so, she encounters Hunky McPectorals (name changed to protect the gorgeous.) Mr. McPectorals is a perfect man--super hot, kind, great at the sex, and irresistibly drawn to Ambrose. And not just sexually; Ambrose can’t seem to go anywhere without Hunky turning up. And also angry mobs. If Ambrose and her dream man are talking, it’s about a fifty-fifty chance that an angry mob of poor rebels is about to start a Benny Hill chase with them. Every time, she gets one or two longing touches or hot kisses with Hunky before she escapes. The next day, she wakes up, shrugs it off, makes some more charitable gestures, keeps up the facade of diplomacy with Senator Rafe, and does it all again.
Against this backdrop, there are occasional signs of deeper villainy. The creepily sexual Senator Rafe murders a young man he seemed to want to seduce, and also attempts to sexually assault Ambrose. A professor and another noble are shooting holes in people’s chests and putting their souls in jars and coffee pots. Some folks calling themselves the Charismatics can see Roan and his fellow shape-shifting spirits. It gets fairly intricate so far as I could tell, but I’m not going to pretend I was paying close attention by the time the revelations started coming.
There are good things about the book. It was clearly well-proofread. Many people gave it positive ratings on Goodreads. Roan was funny from time to time. But asking me to assess The Charismatics' strong points is akin to asking me to referee a match of Cricket. A Cricket player could be absolutely snazzbozzing** the wickets or totally jubskipping** the wimdimple**, and I'd have no idea if it was good or bad. Similarly, Carlson could be absolutely nailing her tropes and hitting high-notes for her audience, and I'd be clueless.
More importantly, most of the problems I have with this book are the same complaints I have with Twilight. Generically nice protagonist? Check. Super-hunky perfect man immediately consumed with feelings for Generica? Check. Enough yearning and teen angst for an entire high school drama club? Check check checkity check. All of these gripes made me subconsciously reach for a fork, but I know many readers look for those very traits in a book.
And so, if you feel Twilight gets a bad rap in the fantasy community, or that The Hunger Games is under-appreciated by bearded snobs, I have two things to say to you: First, speculative fiction has room for everyone. The diversity of styles, sub-genres, and tastes helps make fantasy wonderful. I know people can make snarky comments about the tropes that I love too; I make a lot of them myself. I’m not trying to imply that my tastes are better than yours, even if they are likely very, very different.
And second, may I suggest that you pick up a copy of The Charismatics? It seemed to me the sort of thing a fan of Twilight, The Hunger Games, or The Golden Compass might enjoy.
* I have not read The Golden Compass, and don’t have a strong desire to. As you may have gathered, YA Fantasy is not my scene.
** Actual Cricket terms.