Last night, I stayed up until 2am finishing my ARC of Water to Burn, the second Nola O’Grady novel by Katharine Kerr. Despite being set in San Francisco and following the exploits of Nola, a psychic employed by a secret government agency on the side of Harmony, it’s not quite accurate to describe the series as urban fantasy. For one thing, an ongoing plot point from book one, License to Ensorcell, focuses on the discovery and exploration of deviant world-levels – that is to say, alternate and parallel realities both similar and dissimilar to Earth – populated in some instances by doppelgänger inhabitants raised under vastly different circumstances. This puts the flavour closer to SF than fantasy at times, raising questions about the setting’s scientific theories and contributing to a rich sense of narrative possibility. The series is also distinguished by its strong sense of Earth politics: Nola’s offsider, bodyguard and love-interest since book one, Ari Nathan, is a high-level operative with both Interpol and the Israeli government. While some writers might be tempted to mention this merely by way of exotic background detail, Kerr actively incorporates it into events, not only in terms of Ari and Nola’s respective efforts to balance duties and secrets with their personal relationship, but also as a source of cross-cultural commentary and plot relevance. Just as Nola’s character is defined in large part by her family ties, psychic gifts, religious upbringing and Irish-American heritage, so too is Ari defined by his family ties, martial gifts, religious upbringing and Israeli heritage. Kerr has done her research, and if ever Nola lapses into forgetting that Ari, despite his perfect English, was raised in a different culture, neither she nor the reader is allowed to keep that ignorance for long.
Plot-wise, the events of Water to Burn follow closely on from the end of License to Ensorcell: the Chaos masters who orchestrated the events of book one are still at large, though their influence is being felt in difference ways. A twelve-year-old girl drowns when a freak wave seemingly pulls her from the shore; Reb Ezekiel, the self-professed prophet who ran the kibbutz where Ari spent his childhood, has been sighted in the city, despite having been thought dead for some years; and a shady businessmen appears to be blackmailing Nola’s affluent brother-in-law. Though seemingly disparate at first, these separate occurrences all begin to tie in with the mysterious Peacock Angel cult and its Chaotic adherents, increasing in intensity as Nola and Ari get closer to the truth.
There are several satisfying differences that set this series apart from other UF works. Firstly, the romance: though Nola and Ari flirted and danced around each other for a significant portion of License to Ensorcell, by novel’s end, they’d reconciled their attraction and embarked on an actual relationship. There is no mysterious third wheel waiting in the wings to try and turn things into a love triangle; nor did Water to Burn begin with either party calling things off, thereby restoring a default state of unresolved sexual tension. Instead, they look for a new apartment and move in together, while Nola wrestles internally with her fear that ‘picket-stakes of domesticity’ are dropping into place in her life, confronting her past issues with commitment and abandonment. Given the fact that her other novels have cheerfully featured romantic, sexual scenes, the fact that Nola and Ari’s encounters are always hidden by a cut-to-black suggests that Kerr has made a conscious decision to differentiate the O’Grady books from the plethora of sexy, paranormal crime series already available. In this instance, the romance isn’t about wild, passionate tension, but rather about two defensive, similarly wounded people struggling to turn chemistry into love, with all the pitfalls, doubts and self-recriminations that involves.
The series also places a tremendous significance on family. Again, this runs counter to the usual intuitions about urban fantasy: Nola’s gifts are genetic and certainly contributed to her childhood woes, but she is neither an isolate orphan nor an only child. Instead, we’re introduced to the loving-yet-complicated network of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles – most of them similarly gifted, though in different ways – that make up Nola’s family. We know her mother is in deep denial about her own magical gifts, let alone everyone else’s, while her father, for reasons that are slowly being uncovered, was forced to leave his wife and children while they were still a young family, with consequences that are still being felt in the present. Nola has seven siblings, one of whom was murdered before the start of the first book; a strong relationship with her caring, religious Aunt Eileen; and a plethora of other such kinships, each one uniquely complicated in the way that only extended family can be. So far, we’ve only been allowed to glimpse Ari’s history, but his own upbringing has already proved crucial to the plot, and with Nola fixing to secretly contact his mother, it seems plain that sooner or later, his family secrets will be subject to just as much scrutiny as Nola’s.
Finally, there’s the issue of Nola’s eating habits. As the books are narrated almost exclusively from her POV, the fact that both Ari and her family members are concerned about her having an ‘eating disorder’ is brushed off in her thoughts as meddlesome paranoia. And yet, we also see exactly how much calorie-counting Nola really does: scrimping her portions, foregoing meals, declining various dishes at family gatherings, and generally keeping herself half-starved. It’s both a refreshing and a confronting move on Kerr’s part: refreshing, in the sense that so many heroines are described as meeting society’s physical ideals without any conscious effort on their part or narrative criticism about the value of said ideals, and confronting, because by the end of Water to Burn, we’re left in no doubt that Nola really does have a problem. Happily, our heroine seems to understand this, too, but issues of esteem are never easy to overcome, and we’re left with the knowledge that Nola has a long road yet to travel.
Water to Burn is an immensely satisfying second installment in the Nola O’Grady series. Rather than relying on sexual tension and violence as the backbone of her series, Kerr has instead built a rich, original, complicated world of politics both real and magical, parallel worlds, family ties, cultural clashes and work-in-progress relationships that cannot help but suck the reader in – and I can’t wait to read book three.