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Literature / The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump

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The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump is a fantasy novel by Harry Turtledove.

The setting is a version of 20th-century America where technology is based on magic. Computing devices are run by micro-imps instead of microchips. The air pollution problem in the biggest cities isn't automobile exhaust, it's lint shed by flying carpets. The Environmental Perfection Agency's jurisdiction includes illegally-imported leprechauns and legendary creatures dying out from lack of belief. Also, it's a World of Pun.

EPA agent David Fisher's investigation into possible leakage from the eponymous industrial waste storage site starts out as a routine day at the office and ends up leading to a major conspiracy.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Allohistorical Allusion: At one point, the hero briefly wishes that in light of all the problems with magic, the world only had simple mechanical forces. He then states it would have been a clean, but very technologically primitive world. Just like we tend to see a world where everything is done by magic.
  • Bird vs. Serpent: The heroes face an evil pantheon toward the end, so they summon the Garuda Bird for help. It has an inborn hatred toward snakes, and one of the major members of the pantheon being a lizard turns out to be enough to trigger that.
  • Book Ends: The novel begins with the narrator receiving a call from his boss in the middle of the night (and the boss blaming time zones). It ends with the narrator deliberately calling the boss at the same hour.
  • Cassandra Truth: an unusual two-way variation of this. It’s the heroes job to remain skeptical and careful when everyone is telling him they’re innocent of dumping even though most of them are, while most of the suspects don't pay attention to his honest claims that he’s not singling them out for suspicion.
  • The Case of...: The title is The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, which tells you this is going to be a detective story.
  • Chalk Outline: Justified because the chalk is a mystical substance that's intended to preserve the integrity of psychic evidence or contain malign influences (depends heavily on context). Likewise, crime-scene tape is enchanted to ward off tamperers or the curious from the site of an investigation.
  • Earth/Wind Juxtaposition: Throwing an earth elemental at a Flying Carpet destabilizes the air elemental that powers it. The main character notes that while fire/water is the elemental opposition everyone thinks of, earth/air is just as powerful.
  • Embarrassing Hospital Gown: Judy refers to the hospital attire as "a peep-show of a gown."
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: David’s coworker Michael casts a spell to test if a sorcerer’s flayed human skin substitute is being used for ritualistic purposes and it seems to exonerate the man. However, David quickly asks if the spell would have been ineffective if the “substitute” was real flayed human skin. Michael thoughtfully agrees that this would have nullified his test before horrifiedly realizing that the amount in the vats represented a lot of sacrifices, meaning they're in much deeper trouble than they thought.
  • Fantastical Social Services: Magitek is common, and the EPA's work (confiscating illegally-imported magical creatures, assisting deities endangered by habitat loss, etc.) is treated as day-to-day routine.
  • Fantastic Nuke: A "megasalamander" which can melt a whole city to slag.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Appliance: Everything from clocks and telephones to lighters and industrial equipment are all demon-powered, as is the "Ether", which is a form of radio. Hollywood produces "light and magic shows", the main character packs a blasting rod instead of a gun, and cars are replaced by magic carpets.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Mundane firearms (called "mechanicals", to distinguish them from wands) do exist, but are only as advanced as flintlocks. It's explained that wild elemental spirits are evidently attracted to explosives, and would cause the weapon to blow up if a gun used powder of greater than medieval-era purity.
  • Fictional Disability: Exposure to the magic equivalent of toxic waste (or any similarly "corrosive" magics) can cause a wide range of disorders and disabilities, including lycanthropy and vampirism. Among the worst is a birth defect known as apsychia, which causes infants to be born without a soul and apparently simply stop existing after death—no afterlife, no nothing. The protagonist meets Razman Durani, a medical researcher who is working on an experimental procedure in which tiny pieces of many souls are fused into, essentially, a synthetic soul which can then be implanted in the apsychic child. Whether this will actually work is still unclear.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: A primary force of the world. Gods, demons, and all other denizens of the Other Side exist only through veneration, and as such will cease to exist should they no longer be worshiped. While many gods are sustained through prayers of the population, others are maintained through "artificial cults" of people paid to worship a god or other entity deemed to be worth the expense. Given the disruption religious spread causes ("thecological damage," as it's referred to) the EPA is responsible for determining the impact of changes in theology in a given area. For example, as the pantheon of native Chumash deities in the Southern California region may have "died out" from lack of worship, the EPA is tasked with determining if the spirits still exist, whether they are "worth" saving, and what impact the introduction of new supernatural entities to the area may have.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: David works for the Environmental Perfection Agency. The CIA still exists and the acronym means the same thing, but they use actual spooks.
  • Gunship Rescue: Angels City is saved by the timely appearance of the Garuda bird, which qualifies as a ship because in this timeline the mighty Garuda is being outfitted for space travel by the setting's analog of NASA.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: All succubi have this quality. When a bunch of them gather to picket city hall in protest over Angel City's new anti-vice laws, they don't bother to bring signs, because their "arguments" are self-evident.
  • Holy Burns Evil: When David is attacked by a vampire, he wards it off with a Kabbalistic amulet. He notes a cross would probably have been useless even if he were Christian, since most vampires in the Confederated Provinces are Balkan Muslims.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Given how most of the dumping suspects turn out to be innocent there are a surprisingly large amount of these in the story (although their unhappiness at being investigated makes this less apparent on a first read).
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Most of the novel's locations and ethnicities are based on older naming conventions or transliterations of contemporary names. The novel is set in Angels City, on the coast of the Peaceful Ocean, and just north of the Barony of Orange. On the East Coast of the Confederated Provinces are the District of St. Columba and the city of New Jorvik. Azteca forms the Confederation's southern border. Mention is also made of the nations Alemania and Persia, as well as a Hanese restaurant.
  • Magic Carpet: Everybody drives flying carpets instead of cars. Angels City still has a major air pollution problem, though, caused by stray fibres shed by thousands of carpets. There are also large cargo carpets for moving freight, as well as "heavy lift" carpets for relocating buildings. All are powered by sylphs - spirits of the air.
  • Magitek: The setting is a fantasy version of Los Angeles with magitek equivalents of 20th-century technology.
  • Mayincatec: Mesoamerican religion and the role of Human Sacrifice therein is a plot point.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: A routine EPA investigation into a potential leak at an industrial waste dump uncovers a conspiracy to revive a God of Evil.
  • Modern Mayincatec Empire: Spain didn't colonize America until considerably later than in our world, so there's an Aztec empire (with a thin veneer of Spanishness) in the place of Mexico.
  • Never Was This Universe: There's no clear point of divergence from our history, only an implication that magic and supernatural creatures have always been around. Instead, the novel presents its world as a parallel evolution of our own, just under very different constants.
  • Not So Stoic: Magister Arnold, one of the dumping suspects, when he jokes that at his security wasps having not stung someone to death in a week as David is leaving, causing him a brief moment of panic.
  • Our Souls Are Different: Just as the "thecosystem" plays a major part in how gods exist, spiritual care and wellbeing underpins human life. Prayers are efficacious in healing, spiritual trauma is a real and serious condition, and it is even possible for one's soul to be stolen and imprisoned on the Other Side. Similarly, oaths taken on one's soul are commonplace. A condition called "apsychia" results in someone being born without a soul. They can have a perfectly normal life, but after death they're truly gone.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: On encountering a vampire, lurking and attacking like some cross between a mugger and a stray dog, the Jewish protagonist tosses a Kabbalistic amulet at it to force it into wolf form, whereupon it runs away. Two interesting comments from the narrator:
    • The vampire likely expected him to brandish a cross or crucifix, a likely useless gesture as the vampires in the area tend to be of Balkan descent and were so immune to symbols of Christianity.
    • Under better circumstances, the vampire might have been able to enthrall him while he froze in fear... but after the day he's already had, a vampire attack is an anticlimax, and in his already-stunned condition he did the right thing on autopilot.
  • Raising the Steaks: A seamstress removes a fresh bloodstain from a piece of cloth by having her pet vampster lick it clean. Yes, that's a vampire hamster.
  • Religion is Magic: All magic is ultimately based on applying to a relevant deity, which is one reason the EPA is so concerned about the keeping the divine ecosystem healthy. A major problem for Angels City is water and sewage; while the demon Vepar had been the go-to, the EPA was investigating possibly assembling an artificial cult to worship Poseidon, which would handle water issues as well as provide some additional protection from least, as long as he's happy.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman: There is a brief appearance by a stern, impressively bearded US judge of Islamic origins named Ruhollah. It's mentioned that he left Persia when the secularist government was formed.
  • The Soulless: Exposure to arcane contamination can cause infants to be born without a soul; this is treated as a medical condition, called "apsychia", and a such a person doesn't inherently become evil or amoral, although there have been a few famous cases of people going off the rails after realizing that for them there will be no judgment in the next world.
  • Succubi and Incubi: Succubi and incubi are quite real and something of a problem. At one point, they hold a "demon stration" in front of the EPA, forming picket-lines to protest Angel City's vice laws.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: The novel runs on it. By creating magical parallels with common, everyday items and needs, the narrator's explanations serve to finish covering the gap and acclimating the reader to the novel's world. Perhaps the most literal invocation of this trope is the Spellchecker: a device which analyzes the sorcerous or magical influences and characteristics of objects, places, or materials.
  • Woken Up at an Ungodly Hour: The book starts with the narrator woken up by a call from his boss, who blames time zones for that. It ends with him returning the favor.
  • World of Pun: Wall-to-wall. From Demon Strations (succubi protesting their zone restriction) and Spell Checkers (to check the quality of potions, of course) to Virtuous Reality and Djinnetic Engineering.