What is it with humanity? In fantasy series after fantasy series, we’re the last to know that whole races of monsters and metaphysical beings are messing around in our midst unseen. Witches disguise themselves; werewolf brotherhoods lurk on the edges of society; vampires shutter themselves into the shadows (or try to blend in at high schools in rainy regions). For some reason we humans are so sensitive that we need to be sheltered from the rest.
Fortunately for us, these series are usually stocked with a team of experts who are secretly in the know about all the magic out there. They’re charged with protecting the rest of us in some way: government agencies with supernatural alliances, crime-fighting teams armed with charms and spells. Versions of the same plot race forward from there.
I confess that at first I was afraid Matt Wallace’s forthcoming urban fantasy series “Sin du Jour” was set to recycle this premise. Diving into the first novella, Envy of Angels, I hoped to be proven wrong by some meaningful innovation in the voice or characters or story. The first few chapters made me nervous: after a disorientingly action-packed opening scene, we meet two ordinary New Yorkers who promptly discover that their world harbors a complex ecosystem of paranormal creatures. They barely have a chance to recover from their shock before they’re thrust into the thick of things. Here we go again, right? Could Wallace find a way to make it fresh?
Yes. Yes he could. He pulls it off not by raising the stakes to cosmic heights—will good triumph over evil?—but by taking them down to comic lows—does this taste like chicken to you? This fantasy is FUNNY. And not just because the narration is so snarky.
“Sin du Jour” sets up a world that’s pretty undiscriminating when it comes to mixing and matching magical elements. Christian-ish archangels, pre-Islamic genies, Caribbean voodoo, and far-East talismans all have a part to play. That’s New York City for you, I guess: a melting pot of mythologies from various cultures and time periods. Wallace lays this out for us and then turns away from the usual front-and-center drama of the genre to take us behind closed doors. No, not the heavy mahogany doors of some secret government agency; not even the high-tech hissing-metal doors of a sci-fi laboratory. Think of those two-way swinging doors with circular windows at eye level—the ones that lead to every restaurant’s kitchen.
Of course, this is not “every restaurant.” The titular Sin du Jour is a Manhattan catering company whose sole client is the secret U.S. government branch that manages humanity’s diplomatic relations with all those familiar fantasy species. After all, goblins and gremlins may be hidden, but they still need to host banquets from time to time. And when two demon clans broker a peace treaty, someone has to cook up the celebratory feast.
Despite its references to heaven and hell, Envy of Angels does not recount a battle for the moral arc of the universe. The story centers instead on a quest for a recipe. The chefs of Sin du Jour need a certain secret ingredient so as not to botch a big catering job—never mind whether the ingredient is divine or diabolical, what matters is that it’s delicious.
Fortunately Chef Byron “Bronko” Luck is up to the challenge. His name captures the qualities he brings to the job: one part wild mustang, one part pure luck. His staff includes an event coordinator with a metaphysical Bluetooth and busboys who don’t mind a little mortal danger on the job, but the Stocking and Receiving Department really steals the show. Ritter brings a mysterious expertise in various kinds of sorcery; Cindy started her career as a Naval Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician; Hara is a hulking mass of muscle with a surprisingly in-depth knowledge of ancient languages. Then there’s Moon, the stoner with an iron stomach. And Nikki, the tattooed pastry chef. And Boosha, the food taster who talks to stray dogs. And we haven’t even gotten back to our original protagonists, Lena and Darren, who sign on as cooks and take a wild ride from there.
This human cast is so colorful that their culinary tasks actually become more interesting than whatever evil the demons are up to front of house. We meet the demons too, of course; we also meet an angel, a genie, an enormous enchanted chicken, and a few more otherworldly creatures in the course of the novella. But they’re just plot-driving props compared to the quirky, diverse personalities Wallace has invented. Speaking of the plot, I could go on, but it would be difficult to give away a little without giving away a lot. Suffice it to say that my worries about an unoriginal urban fantasy were progressively blown away by a storyline that gets weirder and more wonderful at every turn.
In Envy of Angels, Wallace takes a familiar premise and then shifts our focus from the main action to a single kitchen crew. They’re not the power players of this world; they don’t have a noble mission to protect humanity, just a job to perform and a vaguely amoral attitude toward it. The stakes are low, but hilarity keeps us engaged for the length of a novella. With a setup like this the next six books in the “Sin du Jour” series could go anywhere—now that we know the team and the shock value has worn off, how will Wallace maintain the pace, energy, and humor? I look forward to finding out when Lustlocked comes out in early 2016.