Pure genre popcorn entertainment is at its best when it does the following: a) it takes at least a token stab at originality, usually by coming at the genre's conventions from a fresh angle; b) it anchors its story to a strong yet vulnerable protagonist; and c) it never, but never, lets up. For Rachel Caine's Ill Wind, lightning strikes on all three. That last one in particular. This is almost absurdly exciting escapism. Fittingly enough for a story about mages who control the weather, you can really break out the meteorological similes here. Ill Wind hits you like a hurricane. It roars along mercilessly like a tornado. And so on.
I come to this saga fairly late, having sampled much of what the seemingly unstoppable urban fantasy tsunami has washed onto the bookshelves throughout the 'aughties. With some notable exceptions, I've been anything from unimpressed to genuinely dismayed. Ill Wind is a reminder that there was a point when urban fantasy was capable of something startlingly original and thrilling. In the early part of the decade, fantasy was still well entrenched in the epic pretentions of the Jordan/Goodkind school of endless doorstopper storytelling. A novel with a strong and original fantasy premise that didn't run 990 pages and moved like greased lightning felt like a complete rebirth of an indifferent genre gone stodgy and flabby. Years later, urban fantasy has developed more than its own share of tedious, recycled clichés. But here is where it all went wonderfully right.
First and best thing about the Weather Warden series: there is nary a vampire nor werewolf to be seen. Granted, Caine has her Morganville Vampires young adult series to take care of that urge, leaving these novels mercifully free from incursions by denizens of the overused Universal monster movie stable. Instead, Caine imagines a world in which a highly politicized magical bureaucracy — not unlike any of our government's other alphabet-soup agencies, really — complete with its own internecine rivalries and conservative and progressive factions, employs people of natural magical ability to combat the very elements of the Earth itself. They even have their own tech support staff. Nature, we are told, has an often malevolent sentience of its own and would be only too happy to wipe us out if given half a chance. No, Mother Earth doesn't seem to like us a whole lot. Which means that depending on your own political leanings, you could see this series as having either a green (we must live in harmony with nature) or anti-green message (nature is the enemy and must be tamed). Either way, having weather magic as a premise alone makes these novels a breath of fresh air, and the fact Caine has done her meterological research into the bargain effortlessly helps her sell the whole concept.
Joanne Baldwin is a young Weather Warden of exceptional ability, able to control and redirect the severity of storms. Indeed, her abilities are seen as potentially threatening to some of her higher-ups in the Wardens Association. And as the novels opens, we see Jo taking it on the lam, accused of killing one of the most powerful Wardens of all, "Bad Bob" Biringanine. She is not exactly innocent of the charge. But there are extenuating circumstances involved. Aren't there always? Now, afraid to simply turn herself in for some very good reasons (chiefly that her bosses will brutally strip her of her powers), Jo has hit the road in search of the one person she hopes can help her. But finding him won't be easy, and knowing whom to trust on her journey even less so.
Jo is a fine heroine for this sort of adventure. Most urban fantasy heroines are little more than Mary Sues for their authors. But the tiresome, conventional stylistic conceit that has overrun the entire genre — übersnarky first-person narration — is, in Caine's hands, toned down into a believable voice reflecting Joanne's anger, fears, frustrations, and moments of real emotional need. The problem with having a protagonist come off too cocky and sarcastic all the time, as so many urban fantasies do, is that as a reader you lose any sense that their problems, and the dramatic conflict the story is supposed to derive from them, are anything you really need to worry about. Here, Jo isn't some comic book superheroine, for all her superpowers. She makes mistakes, and her heart rules her head more often than it should. It is true that, in developing her supporting characters (particularly Jo's romantic interests), Caine jumps with both feet into romance genre clichés. Books like these never have anyone in them — particularly the bad guys — anything less than irresistibly gorgeous. I can roll with that. They call it fantasy for a reason.
If Caine's characters didn't come to mean as much to us as they do, then her action scenes would be for naught. Even so, it takes mad skills to write action scenes at all, and Caine's action scenes are some of the very best I've read anywhere, full stop. Even J.K. Rowling doesn't tear it up the way Caine does in Ill Wind's climactic scenes. If the goal of escapism is to blow you away, then Ill Wind is one cyclone of a story.