Saving the world. Paying the rent. Are these mutually incompatible activities? Laura Resnick ponders this very subject as she discusses Unsympathetic Magic, the latest installment of her fantasy series featuring the quirky character Esther Diamond. And while it might seem at first blush that one have to prioritize these desires (after all, if one does not save the world, paying the rent becomes a moot point), Resnick makes a good argument why both are important in the end.
I love juxtaposition. I love the salty-and-sweet flavor of peanut brittle, and the sinus-clearing heat of a spicy curry accompanied by the creamy coolness of raita. I love the close-to-laughter close-to-tears experience of a well-acted Chekhov play, and the mingling of today’s grief with yesterday’s joys that you get from a good funeral eulogy.
I also like a healthy dose of comedy with my drama, and a generous helping of life-and-death stakes with my farce.
Hence the ethos of my Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, of which Unsympathetic Magic is the newest release. When the brilliant cover artist for this series, the award-winning Daniel Dos Santos finished this cover, he told me that coming up with images that have the right combination of menace and comedy is the big challenge of illustrating these books. (And he keeps getting it just right. So hats off to Dan!)
Esther Diamond is a struggling actress in New York City who gets involved in supernatural adventures along with her friend Dr. Maximillian Zadok, a 350 year old mage whose day job is protecting the Big Apple from Evil. They are assisted in their activities by Nelli, Max’s inconveniently-large canine familiar; and they’re occasionally dogged, thwarted, or beaten to the punch by Detective Connor Lopez, a skeptical cop who would be Esther’s boyfriend if he weren’t so concerned about his growing conviction that she’s a deranged felon.
Esther’s vocation as an actress is similar to mine as a writer; she loves it, it’s the work she was meant to do, and she is fiercely dedicated to it. Like writing, acting is a highly competitive profession, a very unstable way to make a living, and often doesn’t pay that well. Consequently, while fighting Evil and confronting the forces of darkness, Esther is also always looking for work, making sure she can pay her bills (no mean feat in Manhattan!), and vexed about any circumstances that interfere with her ability to earn income or pursue her career.
And that’s an example of the sort of juxtaposition that I’ve enjoyed playing with in this series: While confronting supernaturally powerful adversaries and their rapaciously murderous plans, Esther Diamond has to give equal attention to holding down paying jobs, covering her rent, and watching her budget. These constant obligations characterize life as I have always known it, and since I don’t believe these responsibilities will disappear for me if I wake up tomorrow to discover I’m being menaced by zombies and a voodoo curse, I don’t make them magically vanish for Esther, either.
Thus, Esther is working at three jobs throughout Unsympathetic Magic. Her “real” job is acting in a guest slot on The Dirty Thirty, a TV show about corrupt cops which is widely loathed by the NYPD—including Lopez, as well as the cops who arrest Esther for prostitution one night in Harlem. (There is, as she assures Lopez when she asks for his help, a perfectly reasonable explanation for why she was assaulting strangers at midnight while dressed like a crack whore.) Her regular day job is working as a singing server at Bella Stella, a restaurant in Little Italy that featured prominently in her previous misadventure, Doppelgangster. And her other day job is teaching acting classes at the Livingston Foundation in Manhattan’s lovely old Mt. Morris Park neighborhood.
And while tracking down a mysterious sorcerer who’s using the dark side of voodoo magic to raise zombies, call up dark spirits, and terrorize Harlem by night, Esther makes sure she never misses a minute of work at any of her three jobs.
Pursuing her professional vocation, meeting her fiscal needs, and stomping Evil into the ground before it can swallow her city whole and cancel all auditions forever, in addition to trying to have a love life with her almost-would-be boyfriend (Detective Lopez), keeps Esther pretty busy.
Similarly, making sure that I find the comedy in stories about Evil, homicide, abduction, rapacious greed, and attempts to destroy the world as we know it keeps me pretty busy. The stakes in any story have to be high or there’s not much reason for a reader to get invested in it for 400+ pages; and in fantasy, the stakes are traditionally very high, i.e. the struggle between Good and Evil. So Esther Diamond’s action-packed adventures consist of fantasy drama with one more layer—the funny layer, the layer where absurdity is juxtaposed against menace, the mundane is juxtaposed against the earth-shattering, and the pettily irritating is juxtaposed against the truly terrifying.
Unsympathetic Magic attempts to bring together all of these elements and balance them against each other, while also adding a dash of sex appeal, some fun facts I’ll bet you never knew about traditional voodoo, and the dark stormy climax of a mid-August heat wave.