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Summon the Keeper, Tanya Huff, DAW, 1998, 331 pp.

Summon the Keeper is Tanya Huff's latest novel, and it is a masterpiece of humour and character development. It is also the closest thing to sui generis that a fantasy novel has ever come -- witness the attempts on the back cover to summarize what's inside. I read it a couple of times, trying to make sense of the breathless copy. The typical back cover copy manages to reduce any book down to the silliest, most inane set of clichés imaginable. Summon the Keeper defies all summary, and I sympathize with the people in charge of marketing this book. It is a kind of urban fantasy. It also has elements of the typical horror novel. You could loosely classify it in the haunted house subgenre. But Huff shows once again that she shines brightest when she is exploding every kind of genre boundary and expectation. This book is a rambly sort of variation on the picaresque, with a page-turning intensity that belies the lack of conventional urgency and suspense. This book has passages that shouldn't be read in a situation where you are expecting to keep quiet -- withholding intense laughter is dangerous to your health you know. How many laughs a day do doctors recommend? Whatever the quota, Summon the Keeper fills it, with a narrative that is also full of heart.

Claire Hansen is of the race of humans descended from Adam and Lilith, and they have many magical powers. Such as the ability to seal holes in the fabric of the universe, a task which Claire feels Summoned to perform as the book opens. She arrives at the location, a rundown hotel, along with her cat Austin. The next morning she finds the hotelkeeper has vanished, leaving behind a set of papers showing a transfer of ownership, with her signature affixed. She looks around the building, and discovers that, indeed, her presence is needed here. But the job isn't easy, and in fact there is a possibility she might have to stay at the hotel for the rest of her life, guarding this particular hole in the universe. Not much else really happens, except for meeting a French-Canadian ghost, a vampire who sings in a nightclub, a group of retired Olympians (and it's not what you first think), little imps dressed like electric blue mice, and one extremely sarcastic cat making commentary on all this. Claire's sister shows up, and precipitates a showdown. I liked the ending, and the way Huff wraps things up. It's hard to write a story of this kind, a satire of horror/fantasy, in a tone that is constantly undermining its own narrative drive. Huff pulls it off without the slightest trace of hard work (which, of course, indicates how hard she had to work to get there).

Many of the characters are caricatures, like Jacques, the French-Canadian ghost. He makes witty/mocking comments in French, constantly pesters Claire to give him a body just for one night, and so on. But like all of the other characters (except for the Olympians perhaps), he gets a few moments that etch him more clearly and credibly in memory. Austin, the sarcastic cat, has most of the priceless lines of dialogue in the book, and sometimes he just didn't know when to let up. Huff used that opportunity to let the other characters get annoyed, so that was balanced out nicely. I don't want to talk about the evil in the book, because that's an interesting surprise, and one that Huff uses for her own satiric purposes. Claire Hansen, the main character, has all of the qualities of the best Huff heroine: wit, bravery, heart, and a certain indefinable quality that always gets the audience involved right away. She is also the perfect foil for Austin's jokes, and so, amid all the other snide remarks, we get cracks about Star Trek, French-Canadians, Elvis, and so on.

But Claire herself is responsible for some of the best comic sections. For example, and I quote at length to show the deadpan tone: "Keepers capable of abusing the power granted by the lineage were rare. Claire had only heard of it happening twice before in their entire history. The battles, Keeper vs. Keeper, good vs. evil, had been won but both times at a terrible cost. The first had resulted in the eruption of Vesuvius and the loss of Pompeii. The second, in disco. Claire had only a child's memories of the seventies, but she wouldn't be responsible for putting the world through that again" (52-3). If pondered too long, it makes no sense at all, which another kind of ironic jape at overly serious explanations in these kinds of fantasy novels.

Summon the Keeper is a real treat, with Huff at the top of her form. It's a nearly unclassifiable novel, one that sprawls across two or three genres. But it always makes itself at home in the affections of the reader, and in the end, my fondness of the book's tone became cumulative, and I was laughing harder and harder. Highly recommended, especially for those who don't mind a little irony (well, maybe a lot). Good work all around.

Last modified: July 21, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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