Creatures of Charm and Hunger (2020), the title of the third in Molly Tanzer’s THE DIABOLIST’S LIBRARY series, accurately describes the elemental beings with whom the human diabolists contract in order to do magic. It also accurately describes the two main characters, Miriam and Jane, and Jane’s Aunt Edith, an important secondary character.
These three books are not a trilogy in the conventional sense, since each takes place at a different point of history, with different characters. Creatures of Charm and Hunger follows Jane, Miriam, and Jane’s mother Nancy, who is the librarian for the diabolist library in Hampstead, Britain near the end of the second world war. Miriam was sent to live there when her parents were imprisoned by the Nazis in Europe. (In addition to being a diabolist, Miriam’s father was Jewish.) Both young women are approaching the time of the Test, when they are examined to see if they are suited to being diabolists. Jane and Miriam are very different personalities, and while they love each other, there is friction, just as there is friction between Nancy and her glamorous sister Edith who comes to administer the test. The results of the test open a rift between Miriam and Jane, but an even deeper fracture happens when Edith tells Miriam that her parents are suspected of being Nazi sympathizers.
For very different reasons, Jane and Miriam both embark on quests for forbidden magic, with results that are shocking and tragic. Meanwhile, both Edith and Miriam work to discover what really happened with Miriam’s parents.
The scenes in Nazi-occupied castles and laboratories are all thrilling and suspenseful. While Jane’s adventures are more domestic, they ultimately unleash a greater danger on the house and the library.
Tanzer’s depiction of the uneasy contracts or Pacts between these demonic, elemental beings and some humans is pitch-perfect. No one really knows what a “demon” is or why it’s willing to contract with a human, but the power is undeniable. Like all power, it can be used for righteous or heroic ends, like trying to rescue prisoners from Nazis; for evil purposes (the Nazis have diabolists too); or even for venial, simple, even selfish ends that ultimately are neither good nor evil.
Jane, for instance, loves luxurious things, movie stars, and glamor, and in this she takes after her Aunt Edith. One of my favorite lines is when Jane suddenly figures out a problem in her spell-casting:
… As she was turning over, her sleep-blinking eyes saw the title of the book she’d fallen asleep reading — Ceremonial Practices of the Puritan Witches — and two thoughts about the problem of flight came together as eagerly as Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Some of the demons may have plans of their own, though, as we soon discover.
The sections when our characters attempt to outwit the Nazis are tense and exciting. Goings-on back home in Hampstead are less compelling and less convincing, and the plot requires both young women to overlook the fact that something is going horribly wrong close to home for quite a long time.
While I always enjoy Tanzer’s prose and her interesting take on human nature, I spent the first fifty pages feeling no real forward momentum. Except that I’d promised myself I’d review it, I didn’t feel any pressing need to keep reading. This might have been because I didn’t care for any of the characters at first. I’m glad I kept going, because both Jane and Miriam develop personal stakes that I cared about, and they were high. I’d recommend these books for a different look at magic, and magical contracts, one that is not sentimental or moralistic about wielding power, but doesn’t shy away from the consequences of doing so.