Succubus in the City, Nina Harper

Del Rey, 2008, 392 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-345-49506-8

I should probably start by saying that I’ve known Nina Harper for a few years as nodding acquaintances (back when she didn’t even call herself Nina Harper) and that I really wanted to enjoy this book. I should also make it clear, for calibration’s sake, that I read very little paranormal romance even though it has become one of the hottest SF&F sub-genre over the past few years.

At first glance, Succubus in the City is the kind of book with which I wouldn’t want to be caught. A mixture between Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada, this novel is narrated by a succubus who’s contract-bound to deliver victims to hell after sex. But don’t worry: she’s a good girl who takes delight in sending the bad kind of men downward, and who enjoys spending time with her three demonic girlfriends when she’s not busy working at a fashion magazine. She may be three thousand years old, but she certainly appreciates the amenities of Manhattan, from designer clothes to high-end ice cream.

In many ways, this reads like pure wish-fulfillment fantasy for the female urban professional set: Long litanies of expensive labels, blunt descriptions of shopping, sinful food, a heroine with an obligation to sleep around and send unworthy lovers to hell… Succubus in the City sometimes feels like a self-aware attempt to meld and exploit the tropes of paranormal romance with chick-lit. Not being among the target audience, I’m not sure how well it works, but I can tell you that it’s absolutely fascinating: There are probably a hundred pages in this novel that could have been cut without harming the plot, but the accumulation of brand names, hip references and upper-upper-class Manhattanite living makes for a neat reading experience: This may be an alien culture to me, but wish-fulfillment jumps gender barriers better than I expected.

But Nina Harper is smarter than you and I, and so Succubus in the City is more than a litany of Things Women Want: there’s a fairly sophisticated mythology at play here, one where angels and demons are two sides of the same coin, where hell lives up to modern management techniques and where Satan’s top lieutenants have been at this game for thousands of years. The narrator is a three-thousand-year-old minor princess, and Harper’s take on modern society via the eyes of someone who has seen it all can be more amusing than you’d expect. This is a lighthearted novel, after all, one where Satan’s reputation exceeds his worst traits, one where the victims all deserve it and one where hell’s minions have access to their own version of LiveJournal called MagicMirror. (“Meph” is a foodie with his own restaurant reviews.) Everything is handled with a light touch and a professionals’ eye for decent plot mechanics. The details of the novel are where it works best: I was particularly happy with the character of Azz, a librarian with the look and temperament of a cat.

Where the novel doesn’t work as well is when it tries to piece everything together. Narrator Lily and her friends are fun to hear, but it’s hard to reconcile some of their conversations with the personality of people who have lived through entire civilizations: the banter works for Sex and the City (which is explicitly referenced; the narrator thinks she’s Samantha), but for characters with that much experience in the ways of humanity… not so much. There are other issues of verisimilitude, starting from the curious lack of repercussions from taking so many people out of circulation. Most of those issues are hand-waved away with an omnipotent “Authority” that raises more questions than it satisfies: the real answer, of course, is that this is the type of fantasy where we’re not meant to ask too many questions. Which is a shame, considering the fun of Harper’s vision of hell and its servants.

I haven’t said much about the plot so far because it doesn’t seem particularly important, even to the characters who take off to Aruba, are temporarily stumped by Google and can’t be bothered to exhibit the appropriate paranoid response at the suggestion that one of their own is conspiring against them. Trying to put a thriller plot framework on a light-hearted wish-fulfillment romantic fantasy can be tricky, especially considering the breaks for extravagant consumption.

Add to that the considerable frustration of discovering that this is the first part of a series: the story doesn’t end as much as it is interrupted on the last page. What could have been forgivable with a “Book One of the Sexxubus Trilogy” warning ends up being a problem, at least until we are able to order the rest of the series.

Not that this makes this novel any less fascinating to read, even when I can feel the commercial imperatives of the genre being deliberately tweaked by the author. Some authors may talk about paranormal romance as female empowerment, but Harper is the one that writes about sending unsatisfactory lovers straight to hell. Even guys like me can learn something from this book.

[May 2009: Second volume Succubus Takes Manhattan is more of the same, with a few uneven differences: More descriptions of satanic rituals, more palace plotting amongst Hell’s minions, and a strengthened romantic intrigue between heroine Lily and her two men. On the other hand, the core strengths of the series remain: Harper doesn’t miss an occasion to go on virtual spees of wish-fulfilling indulgence. It’s all good fun, but those who haven’t been seduced by the first volume won’t have their minds changed by this follow-up.]

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