Harry Connolly is the uncrowned king of the elevator pitch: After “Epic Fantasy without the boring bits” for his Epic Fantasy Trilogy The Great Way, now it’s “Pacifist Urban Fantasy” for his most recent offering, the (you guessed it) Urban Fantasy novel A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark (and he’s really good with snappy titles, too).
Urban or (as I prefer) Paranormal Fantasy a genre is pretty much defined as being about “badass heroes or heroines kicking lots of ass”; and even though there have been some more beta protagonists recently (in the excellent series by Rachel Aaron and M.V. Brennan), “pacifist Urban Fantasy” still sounds almost like a contradiction in terms. And Connolly is not just mouthing off, but actually holds true to his premise – while there is some violence it is all on the side of the baddies (you do have to build up a convincing threat after all), while our protagonists do not even retaliate after several attempts on their lives but invariably try for (and eventually achieve) a peaceful solution, using brains (and some magic) rather than brawns.
This might sound boring to the seasoned reader of Paranormal Fantasy who is used to lots of ass being kicked but on the other hand the genre is so choked by clichés by now that they might experience as a fresh breeze. For my part, I’m firmly in the second camp – while A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark might not be as compulsive reading as some of the better representatives of the genre out there, or even Connolly’s own Great Way (I still have to read his Paranormal Twenty Palaces series) it still makes for a highly entertaining read. The plot is kept moving by a murder mystery and follows the investigation of the death of deeply unsympathetic lawyer Aloysius Pierce by his aunt Marley Jacobs and his half-brother Albert. While the question of who killed Aloyisius and why is what keeps events moving forward, it’s not really what keeps the reader turning the pages – the main appeal of the novel is not its plot, but its characters, and more precisely its main protagonist Marley Jacobs.
Even though we mostly view her through the eyes of her nephew Albert – a former soldier who lost half his right hand in Afghanistan and in the course of the novel slides into a new job as his aunt’s assistant – Marley is clearly the heroine of A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark, and here Connolly deviates even more from genre expectations than with his pacifistic premise. For she is no leather-clad twenty-year old, not even a slacker in jeans and sneakers, but a nice elderly lady who appears completely harmless. Of course, even if somewhat less obvious, she is also the protector of Seattle – where the novel takes place – and an experienced magician, which makes for a fun combination, especially with the way Connolly envisions magic here as something that is not ruled by any system but capricious, whimsical, apparently random and generally a delight to read about.
“Delightful” is in fact how I would characterize A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark – again, not exactly the most likely epithet for a Paranormal Fantasy novel, but a great part of this novel’s pleasure stems precisely from its unlikeness. It apparently came into being as a stretch goal for Connolly’s Epic Fantasy Kickstarter project, and that is probably the reason why it’s a bit rough around some of its edges and not nearly as polished as the novels that made up The Great Way. But it gives the impression that its author had a lot of fun writing it, and at least this reader greatly enjoyed it reading it.