Summon the Keeper is quite possibly the first of Tanya Huff’s books that I read – she’s another one of those writers who has a long history in my library. This one is a contemporary urban fantasy that is hilariously funny, original, and captivating.
Claire Hansen is a Keeper, one of those who closes rifts between this earth and the continuum which supplies the energy for magic. She is on her way to Kingston, Ontario, following a summons, in the company of Austin, a cat, who, among other talents, talks – and has got quite a mouth on him. The summons leads them to the Elysian Fields Guesthouse, a somewhat rundown mansion converted in the distant past to a bed and breakfast. The guesthouse is run by Augustus Smythe, who, it turns out, is a Cousin – one of those who guard sites of leakage that cannot be sealed; Keepers are called “Aunt” or “Uncle” (don’t ask – as Claire says, she didn’t assign the names). Smythe, who apparently was sort of over his tenure there, has signed over the guesthouse to Claire and departed in the night. This Claire discovers in the morning when she comes down from her room for breakfast. She also discovers Dean McIssac, a young man from Newfoundland who is the caretaker, cleaning staff, and cook. He is also twenty-one years old (well, almost), tall, muscular, gorgeous, and the most grounded human being Claire has ever met. The guesthouse itself, as it turns out, is on the site – there is sleeping evil, in the form of a magically enchanted Keeper-gone-bad, in room 6, and the house is heated by a hole into Hell in the basement. There is Mrs. Abrams, the next-door neighbor, a suicide redhead who keeps an extraordinariliy obnoxious Doberman – her Baby. There is the ghost of a French Canadian sailor named Jacques in the attic, who immediately puts the make on Claire. There are imps running around, no doubt the result of leakage from the site. And that is the basic household.
The story is fairly simple – once Claire realizes that the guest house was, indeed, the site she’s been summoned to deal with, she has to figure out what to do about the serious rift in the basement, as well as the “Sleeping Beauty in reverse” in room 6. And there are the guests to contend with – a vampire who works as a traveling musician; two werewolves in for a dog show; a group of retired Olympians – no, not athletes. There is commentary by the denizens of Hell in the basement. There is a visit from Claire’s mother. There is Diana, Claire’s younger sister, still in high school and the most powerful Keeper ever known, who manages to precipitate the final crisis. There is a trip to find the Historian, which involves entering an alternate universe through the wardrobe in Claire’s bedroom. And there is Austin, who is either clairvoyant or a really annoying know-it-all. (It is Austin who explains the whole system to Dean – the first of what becomes a series of rather mind-warping shocks. Dean, being the incontestably stable person he is, adapts.) And you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced Halloween with a hole to Hell in the basement.
The creation of the universe this book inhabits is seamless – it is remarkably well-done, and I just wonder how it might serve in a more serious vehicle. This book rides on the details – the modest backpack into which Claire routinely stuffs a desktop computer, complete with monitor and printer; the trips through the wardrobe to find the Historian; the character of Dean, who is too good to be true and perfectly believable, given his history; the constraints under which Jacques operates; the imps; even Dean’s Newfoundland accent — all combine to make a very cogent, solidly constructed world based firmly in contemporary urban Canada.
There is not really a great deal more to say about this book, except that it is delightful. It makes no pretense of being great literature, and the discussions of good and evil are not meant to lead to serious moral interrogations, except for the characters. The humor is sometimes broad, but more often sharp, with a good blend of sarcasm and wit, and Huff is a fluent and engaging writer. The final confrontation of good and evil, after the development of some surprising histories, is suitably hair-raising, involving the sacrifice of a virgin – not telling who the virgin is – and a touching denouement involving the ghost.
It’s fun, light reading, and best of all, it’s the start of a series, which continues with The Second Summoning.
(DAW Books, 1998)