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The Hummingbird Wizard

Meredith Blevins

Forge / Tor

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-765-30769-3

Publication Date: 09-17-2003

400 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 09-25-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



General Fiction, Mystery


Mysteries aren't what they used to be. There was a time when you could count on a male detective, the crime of murder, murky motivations and simple solutions. That's long past and elegantly buried in Meredith Blevins' 'The Hummingbird Wizard'. Blevins puts men in the background in this tale of three generations of women who find it easier to come to grips with one man's murder than with one another. Blevins blasts the reader with witty dialogue, a fascinating sub-culture and lots of humor. Mystery and suspense take a back seat to character development and breezy, tart conversations. But even though there's a lot of dialogue -- both inner and outer -- you won't find yourself ever wondering when these people are going to shut up. No, this is the best time you're going to have this year eavesdropping on the conversations of mouthy women and their friends and relatives. While 'The Hummingbird Wizard' may present itself as a mystery, it's really as much fun as 'My Big Fat Gypsy Funeral'.

Annie Szabo is doing a pretty damn good job getting on with her life after the death of her husband. It's been a couple of years, and she's managed to stay away from his pushy, outspoken family of Gypsies, especially her mother-in-law Mina. She's taken solace from Jerry, a San Francisco attorney and also a one-time member-by-marriage of the Szabo clan. When Jerry is killed in what appears to be a mugging, the Szabos come rushing back into her life like kids into a playground at recess. At the center of the clan is the mysterious Hummingbird Wizard.

Blevins has a field day with Gypsy lore and scams, dotting them across the Northern California cityscape with perfect aplomb. The Szabos have interests and half-relatives seemingly everywhere. Madame Mina, at least, the clan's matriarch, is seemingly everywhere in this novel. She fills it with a brassy entertaining presence that shows clearly what happens when a character takes on a life of her own. One can imagine Blevins at her keyboard, typing madly as Mina dictates. Mina has a fair amount of competition in Annie, who is the right mixture of pushy and vulnerable. Each of the women in this novel is nicely detailed and appropriately prickly. They're a great deal of fun to be around.

Men on the other hand get a decidedly mixed treatment. The Hummingbird Wizard himself is something of a cipher, mostly because he doesn't have a lot time; there are too many women busting in. The most entertaining man here is another character who clearly started dictating his lines, Pinky Marks. The aging conman and clan leader of sorts, he has the genial presence that suggests he'd be well-portrayed by Carl Reiner. Yes, 'The Hummingbird Wizard' is the kind of book that will definitely have most readers casting the movie version.

What brings to mind the movie is Blevins' lively pace and clever dialogue. The Gypsy subculture is wonderfully detailed and Blevins' ability to reveal another fascinating facet as the pages fly by is admirable. Her characters live in a world that's just a little wonky. Curses, love potions and magic sit comfortably alongside parking tickets and income tax investigations. But Blevins' language and delivery keep the whole novel tight and coherent.

Blevins sets the story in a very well described Northern California. Readers will see every nice scene she sets up, from a traditional big-old Gypsy Funeral on Drake Bay, to the Haight-Ashbury séance shop, to the chaotic convening of the family at Annie Szabo's Valley of the Moon hideaway. Blevins' characters are easily envisioned as well, from the suave and mysterious titular character to ever-bustling Madame Mina. Like many a woman writer, Blevins' excels at the old trick of creating characters by their clothing.

Readers should not come 'The Hummingbird Wizard' expecting a lot of menace or mystery. It's not entirely absent, but it's clearly not the point. Blevins is not so much concerned with who did what as she is with how they reacted and what they said about it. Suspense is secondary as well. The novel is compelling not because we want to find out what's going to happen so much as because we want to enjoy everyone's reactions to what is happening. This is not to say that the novel is without surprise. It's more that the surprises arise around what the characters will say than what the characters have done.

For a first novel, 'The Hummingbird Wizard' feels surprisingly assured. Blevins has a perfect sense of what she wants to do and she simply does it, strutting across any potential genre associations to follow her strong-willing women characters. Blevins could really have a hit on her hands with the very large female audience for mysteries, even though her work is not particularly mysterious. As long as her internal microphone continues to covertly pick up the conversations of Annie, Mina and the rest of the Szabo clan, readers will be in for a tart treat. For Blevins' readers, eavesdropping is much more entertaining than espionage.