Book review: Charm by Cat Hellisen

Charm is a hard book for me to rate or review because I have a problem with the ending. That being the case, how do I talk about the problem without spoiling the whole thing? I guess I should give the basics and then talk about what I liked, and then carefully pick my way around the ending to avoid spoilers.

Charm is about a young woman named Irene, who grew up believing her mother Hestia was crazy, and that her madness eventually led to her committing suicide. Irene wears a charm that belonged to her mother, a ward against the evil eye that behaves in a strange way around certain people. Despite this unusual pendant, Irene doesn’t believe in magic, and she’s more worried that she has inherited her mother’s madness.

Irene has one lifelong friend, Rain, who she loves deeply, but who cannot love her back in the same way because he’s gay. Rain lives with his abusive mother Lily and is locked in a co-dependent cycle with her and Irene. Lily keeps Rain close and uses him to host her own pity party, while Irene enables his heavy drinking while jealously stalking him through his various romantic encounters. Dysfunctional is the order of the day for most of the characters in this story.

The arrival of another magic user upsets the cyclical pattern for everyone, as Caleb takes Rain away from Irene and Lily by casting a spell on him. Shortly thereafter, things begin to get very weird for Irene, who learns from Caleb that her mother Hestia was not crazy at all, and neither is Irene. She is a witch of considerable power, and Caleb hopes to use her in a fight against a powerful mage.

There’s some parts in the middle of this book that kind of remind me of American Gods. Not the deities so much as the theme of a main character coming to learn about the secret world hidden away from normal people, a world she should know about, but doesn’t because she’s been living in denial her whole life.

There’s some fights with monsters leading up to the point of Irene learning how to control her power, and then there’s the ending. There’s no tension to it, and it’s over quite quickly, making it a bit of a letdown after the rising tension from the previous chapters. Part of this has to do with Caleb’s plan, which everyone but Irene knows about. And this is mostly fine if not for Rain. Rain was apparently told this plan, and how it would involve using Irene, and despite him being her best friend since childhood, he says nothing. Then, even knowing Caleb is manipulating his best friend, he abandons Irene like the ending is her fault. Ultimately, it takes all my sympathy for Rain and chucks it out a window. As for Caleb, his plan stinks, and even the big reveal twist at the end doesn’t change my opinion of him. What he does to Irene to beat the bad guy is dreadful.

There is one other thing that I felt unsatisfied with as well, and that’s Rain’s back story. There’s an event hinted at that explains why Rain is so messed up, but it’s never really revealed what happened to him. I can’t help but wonder at that, but I guess it’s something so unspeakable that it had to be left hidden. Sure, not everything has to be explained in a story, but I would have liked an answer to that question.

In the end, I guess I have to give Charm 4 stars. Okay, I really didn’t like the ending, but I did like most of the book leading up to that point. It’s a good story that I’d recommend to fans of modern dark fantasy.