The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove
David Fisher is an inspector for the Environmental Perfection Agency (EPA), a bureaucracy in charge of regulating the industrial by-products (pollution) caused by using magical spells in an alternate America where most of the technology is based on magic or the actions of any deities or demons that people believe in. For example, the telephones work because there are imps that relay messages back and forth, salamanders produce heat, and vehicles are actually flying carpets.
One night, David gets a frantic call from a superior who tells him that there’s some unusual activity at a spell dump north of this world’s version of Los Angeles. A spell dump is where companies and other entities guard the spells they devise so they can keep them secret, and so any dangerous by-products of the magic are contained.
When David visits the spell dump, he notices some oddities that concern him. After he checks the records at a nearby Catholic monastery and discovers that several children from the surrounding area have been born without souls, he suspects a toxic leak from the dump. As he continues to follow the clues, he becomes even more worried and, when his fiancée (Judith) is kidnapped, he starts to panic.
The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump (1993) has an interesting premise, it moves at a nice pace, and I liked David and Judith and their mature relationship. But I got tired of the silly puns which reminded me of a less puerile version of some of Piers Anthony’s works. I also don’t think Harry Turtledove’s world worked very well — technology based on magic and the integration of all the world’s faiths (all of which are true) just didn’t meld into a believable world.
But I suspect that the puns, rather than the world-building, were the point of this story and I just didn’t think they were that funny. I tend to enjoy puns when they’re spontaneously generated in a conversation, but not when they’ve been constructed as part of the plot of a book. Terms such as sylph-esteem and djinnetic engineering, and virtuous reality made me roll my eyes, as did paragraphs like this one:
On the way, I passed a church dedicated to St. Andrew. Actually, to San Andreas because it was an Aztecan neighborhood. A line of penitents was filing in. I wondered why. Saint Andrew’s feast day isn’t until November. Then I remembered the morning’s earthquake. No doubt they were calling on the saint to keep more, and worse, from happening. Their chants rang so loud and sincere, they made me sure that if another earthquake did strike, it wouldn’t be San Andreas’s fault.
Some of Turtledove’s language may prickle the modern conscience. Everyone’s ethnicity is mentioned, sometimes immigrants are spoken of in an insensitive way, there’s plenty of stereotyping going on, and it has to be noted (and some people are surprised) when women are smart. Turtledove admirably gives black women managing positions, but then ruins it with:
Up til then I hadn’t noticed the boss of the team was a woman. She was black, slim, maybe my age, not half bad, though she looked both too smart and too tough to be model pretty.
And we’re also told that Europeans did more with the lands in America than the original inhabitants would have done in the same amount of time. Yikes!
So, yeah, there were a few things that made me cringe, but mostly it was the puns. This kind of story is not my thing, but it’s an interesting premise, and it’s well written with some good characters, so if puns are your thing, give this a try. The audio version was recently released by Tantor Audio. It’s 13.5 hours long (though I sped it up) and the performance by narrator William Dufris (one of my favorites) is superb.