“Words can’t contain all the emotions inside. And yet they are the most powerful weapon we ever gained as a species.”
An imPerfect Samhain is a standalone novella set in C. N. Rowan’s urban fantasy imPerfect Cathar Universe. My review is for the audiobook, which C.N. Rowan himself narrates and which I heartily recommend.
Although a lot of authors throw around the term “standalone,” I’m delighted to say that Samhain genuinely does contain a complete story that can be enjoyed with no prior knowledge of the series. For me it seems like a perfect (hah!) introduction to the imPerfect Cathar Universe, and if the blend of comedy, charm, and heartfeltness on display here is anything to go by then I have no doubt anyone who’s enjoyed this novella will likewise adore the first main entry, imPerfect Magic. I had heapfuls of fun with this witty, character-driven Urban Fantasy and can’t wait to dive into the rest of Paul and Aicha’s adventures.
I’d been intrigued to try Rowan’s series since May when I first learned about it. As someone who always sets aside at least one class (no matter the course) to rant about the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade in his lectures, I was immediately intrigued by the premise of an immortal, undead-ish Cathar named Paul who investigates the paranormal with a team of fellow heretics. The punniness of the title only added to my excitement.* Samhain in particular spoke to me, as the novella focuses on a case from Paul’s past that took place in 1958 in the middle of the Algerian War of Independence. Having just come off a re-read of Camus’s The Stranger and a first read of Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation, a book set during the period landing in my lap felt like kismet.
The particular case Paul and his colleague Aicha investigate in Samhain involves a series of child murders. The bodies of children are turning up all over Nice and the surrounding area, but the non-magical authorities (along with everyone else) all seem in a bit of a haze when it comes to investigating the crimes, as though someone or something is tampering with their ability to think about the victims. Paul and Aicha’s investigation into the crimes leads them along a trail with a satisfying and well-thought-out set of twists and turns. Without spoiling the book, the climax is both deeply unsettlingly and emotionally powerful, with equal parts humour and gravitas.
Right from the jump the page sizzles with voice. Both Paul as a character and Rowan as a narrator have oodles of personality and it’s the vivacious and propulsive quality of the writing (and reading) that set the book apart for me. There wasn’t a line that felt as though it broke POV–Rowan is an author who has a deep understanding of the strengths of first person and employs them to great effect. Emotion doesn’t just ooze from the page–it overflows. Paul is witty, self-deprecating, and above all a somewhat tragic figure (he has, after all, had several lifetimes over which to lose people). As someone who’s focused on uplifting the voices of the downtrodden, Paul is also an easy protagonist to root for. His utter disgust at both the crimes themselves and the often heartbreaking family dynamics he encounters is felt on almost every page. This emotional intensity is brilliantly conveyed through Rowan’s narration, though if I were to quibble at all about the book, I would say that sometimes lowering the intensity just a smidgen to create more dynamic levels in the audio and allow the prose to breathe a bit more, would elevate it just a tad. ***
“Thanks to tucking away money in various investments and banking institutions . . . I can actually afford to buy one of the drinks on offer without having to pawn a kidney. Or two. Possibly the majority of my internal organs.”
I would be remiss not to mention Samhain‘s other lead character, Aicha. As a novella, Samhain a relatively short story, and Rowan wisely keeps the cast tight. This allows him the space for some impressive character work. Paul and Aicha are our windows into Rowan’s imPerfect world and Aicha’s deadpan humour and teasing are the perfect counterpoint to Paul’s emotional intensity. Aicha is badass without falling into the sterotype of the strong female character that became so popular around the late 00’s and early 2010’s. While she can come off as cold and aloof, it’s clear through both her own dialogue and Paul’s asides that there’s a deep warmth and an intense well of feeling beneath her steely exterior–one that doesn’t rival Paul’s, but meets it. The characters’ friendship is one of the true delights of Samhain, and though Rowan flirts with a buddy-cop style dynamic, he avoids the one-dimensionality that a weaker writer might fall into. Aicha isn’t just the straight man to Paul’s goofball; there’s a real vulnerability to both characters, and Aicha is given plenty of opportunities to shine . Many of her quips and teasing barbs had me laughing aloud–something I almost never do while reading, even when I find a book outrageously funny. Without spoiling too much, Rowan weaves elements of Berber folklore and religion into the mystery, giving Aicha (who is herself based on a North African mythological figure) more than plenty to contribute. I was also very pleased that Paul and Aicha’s relationship remained a friendship rather than developing into a romance.
In terms of style, Rowan’s prose is fairly minimalistic, and there’s a Noir-ish quality to the storyline that’s established through the close first-person POV. That said, when Rowan wants to showcase his flare for description, he goes all-in. The final chapters contain some of the most vivid, precise, and elegant descriptive writing I’ve encountered and I paused the audio multiple times to linger over specific lines (both due to the technical skill of the writing, but also the depth of emotion and theme being conveyed).
I had very few (and very slight) criticisms. Although Paul is French, the slang he uses is distinctly English (though if I’m honest I very much enjoyed this element of Paul and Aicha’s back and forth, so I hesitate even to mention it). I did also intially find the voice used for Aicha in the audio a little bit charicaturish in the sense that a very high pitch was used for her as a female character. By the final half of the book, however, I really didn’t mind and had grown to enjoy it. I’m not sure if this shift was because my perception changed or if Rowan got more comfortable in the role.
An imPerfect Samhain is a tightly paced read that will surprise you with not only its twists, but its depth. This was an urban fantasy to make me fall back in love with the genre, after years of tired Dresden Files copycats. Urban Fantasy fans looking for something startlingly new, with stronger character work than in a lot of recent UF offerings, best take note.
*If you’re a very into Catharism** it’s extremely clever, I promise.
**Isn’t everyone very into Catharism?
***By “smidgen,” “a bit more,” and “just a tad,” you can probably tell how minor a point this is. Rowan’s narration has a frenetic, compulsive quality to it that easily draws you in and I found myself enjoying it more and more as I listened. It seemed to me, also, that Rowan grew more confident as the story progressed.