Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

Owl and the Japanese Circus

I chewed my lower lip and opened the folder – it’s not like I had a lot of options. Inside was a list of locations: China, Japan, Korea, and a few places in Indonesia. I knew all of them. I’d turned down jobs in each and every one because they were supernatural hotspots.

I closed the folder and passed it back. If I hadn’t been sitting in front of a dragon, I’d have thrown it as far away as humanly possible. “Look, Mr. Kurosawa, I’m really sorry, but I can’t–”

“Are you happy with your existence?” he asked.

That caught me off guard. “Ahh, if you mean am I fond of living, yeah, I’m pretty attached to it.”

Smoke billowed out of his nose as he reclined against the white leather, his glowing black eyes boring into me. “The running, hiding, evading, knowing no one would ever believe you — doesn’t it get tedious?”

Owl is an archaeologist turned treasure-hunter, stealing artefacts to order for wealthy customers. After she accidentally found herself on the wrong side of a pack of vampires, though, she’s careful: no more supernatural jobs. Ever. She checks out clients and sites alike before committing to anything, and there’s no money good enough to change her mind. Not when she already has millions in the bank, unable to spend it while she’s running for her life.

When she discovers she’s accidentally been working for a dragon, though, he offers the one thing that might tempt her. A solution to her vampire problem, in exchange for one job. As Mr Kurosawa well knows, it’s an opportunity money couldn’t buy, and a chance she can’t afford to turn down.

The plot revolves around Owl’s search for a magical scroll, and has the feel of an Indiana Jones movie in parts, as she springs supernatural booby-traps in ancient temples. Between scenes in Tokyo, Bali, and Kurosawa’s Japanese Circus casino in Las Vegas, there’s a strong Asian influence which flavours the story, though the vampires are European. The supernatural elements are neatly woven into the otherwise recognisable present-day setting, with aspects borrowed from almost every world mythology, on the premise that there’s a grain of truth to everything you’ve ever heard.

Borderline alcoholic and painfully shy, Owl is an antihero for the frustrated academic, turning to professional theft after getting screwed over by her department. She can be selfish and thoughtless, and you get the sense that she secretly prides herself on her lack of “people skills” — preferring to keep her social interactions to the anonymous setting of her favourite computer game.

Gaming is a huge part of Owl’s identity, and provides almost her only chance (besides drunken oblivion) to get away from the stresses of her everyday life, so it’s a source of anxiety when her game world and real life converge. The online multiplayer game World Quest, her favourite pastime, is portrayed as a realistic simulation of the grave-robbing world she inhabits professionally, so it’s hardly surprising to the reader — and I’m sure that more about the game’s designers will come out in later books, as these links can’t be a coincidence. Carpe Diem, her pseudonymous friend in the game world, also has secrets of his own.

Of Owl’s two real-world friends, Nadya is now a nightclub owner in Tokyo, but knows Owl from the days when she was Alix the grad student. She knows the whole story from their days together in the archaeology department — including the worldwide conspiracy of archaeologists who pushed Owl out of academia. The other, Rynn, is a host in a Japanese club, giving Owl no shortage of trust issues as she tries to unpick whether he really likes her, or only listens so attentively because he’s being paid to spend time with her. It’s a question that only kicks up in importance when he kisses her.

I loved the interactions between these three. Owl isn’t naturally the most likeable character, and she tends towards dreadful decisions when she’s under stress, but from her first-person narrative it’s obvious that she believes she’s taking the best actions she can in a series of very challenging circumstances. With her mind addled by alcohol and magic she is, I suspect, not the most reliable of narrators. But it’s not until Nadya and Rynn start to challenge her that she begins to question her own tendency to recklessness: the way they clash, and Owl’s subsequent growth, is a testament to the power of friendship. And it’s unlikely she would have made it through alive without their more practical assistance.

Although this is a self-contained novel, the ending sets up a major cliffhanger for Owl’s next adventure, so I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next instalment.

Published this week, Owl and the Japanese Circus is a strong debut from Kristi Charish.

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