Small Magics by Erik Buchanan

7/10 Small Magics marks the important debut of a uniquely gifted writer.

Small Magics, by Erik Buchanan (Dragon Moon Press, 2007).
ISBN 10 1-896944-48-5 Print Edition
ISBN 13 978-1-896944-48-7

A Review by Kathryn Whitney

With the world of both publishing and the film industry aflame with excitement over what Harry, Ron and Hermione got in the morning owl post at Hogwarts, it is more than fair to say that the “fantasy” genre has finally come of age. Gone are the days when stories about magical powers, adults in robes, and the threat of creatures looming in a mysterious half-life could only be found in the dark corners of lonely teenage bedrooms. Young or old, rich or poor, male or female, niche or mainstream readers, we have en masse “come out of the closet” and declared our attraction to the central themes of the fantasy genre. Who among intelligent readers is not interested in the struggle between good & evil, or in adventure, or the possibility of supernatural powers and the incredible challenge of upholding the ideals of truth and loyalty in the moment we see Death face to face? We all are, of course, as legions of authors well know. The themes of the modern fantasy novel have come alive on the world stage like the broomstick of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, flooding the room with the delight, exhilaration and insight their stories provide, and washing the stale smell of adolescence finally, firmly away. “Fantasy” as a genre has, at long last, been overtaken by the nature of its content, “magical” – a much more appropriate moniker for the phalanx of brilliant, imaginative, and compelling fiction that has had readers guiltlessly turning down invitations since Lucien first published Philopseudes (c. 2 AD, and Goethe's model for Der Zauberlehrling in 1787). These books, we can now all publicly agree, leave us spellbound.

What does all this have to do with Erik Buchanan's debut novel Small Magics, published by Dragon Moon Press in 2007? Everything. Buchanan has created a new work that bears all the best hallmarks of this popular and exciting genre – mystery, suspense, fear, adventure, danger, conflict, valour, magic – and at the heart of his story beats a solid, well-structured plot, featuring pace, purpose, inventive twists and interesting, clearly defined characters. The novel opens with Buchanan's protagonist, Thomas Flarety, a brilliant student of philosophy in the ancient Royal Academy of Learning, travelling home to see his family for the first time in four years. Upon arrival, Thomas is violently beaten and thrown out of the house by his father, a parent who had previously had nothing but admiration for and pride in his achievements. Thomas's mother and brother hover sheepishly, and, Thomas intuits, oddly knowingly, in the background. What in the name of the Four (to invoke a prayer from Buchanan's world) is going on?

In Thomas' absence, it turns out, his father, a successful merchant, has become a (possibly unwilling?) player in some recent political manoeuvring instigated by the shadowy and powerful Bishop Malloy. Thomas becomes convinced that his father is under the influence of a dark and powerful force and that this is somehow connected to other suspicious occurrences and unexplained visions in the otherwise sleepy, traditional town. Only when Thomas finds a kindly local circus “magician” (no one but Thomas believes his conjurings to be potentially real) brutally beaten to death at his caravan is Thomas able to convince his two friends, siblings George and Eileen Gobhann, to accompany him on the journey to uncover the Bishop's secret. The plot then speeds off through a cleverly constructed series of chases, fights, obstructions and separations as Thomas tries gallantly to beat the Bishop and his men to the walled city housing the Royal Academy of Learning, where Thomas' quest for truth – and with it, very nearly, his life – come to a treacherous and riveting end.

Without a doubt, the echoes of the Harry Potter series are audible in Small Magics, from the loyal triumvirate of the three friends (two male and one female), through the quasi-medieval setting (the characters use vocabulary such as “Aye” and “Nay”, and the book is set about a hundred years after the invention of the printing press [217]), to the stock plot device of the protagonist's advantage (only Thomas can see the “small magics” of the title). The book's emphasis on the transfigurative power of privileged knowledge, specifically that gained through access to, and with it “membership” of, the brotherhood of ancient places of learning (the Royal Academy of Learning, Cf. Hogwarts), too, is a familiar trope with Rowlingian undertones. But tired as these devices might have been from the pen a lesser author in the post-Potter era, Buchanan's story nevertheless remains robustly fresh. He is never derivative, and he is unfailing in his commitment to use proven devices differently – interestingly and unpredictably – infusing them with relevance and interest.

A few examples from a possible many serve to illustrate this point. The characters of George and Eileen are good friends of Thomas, and so agree to help him. But they do not at all believe in his quest for a good portion of the novel and they contrive a number of ways to abandon him or thwart his progress: a refreshing change from the gratingly ever-eager Ron and Hermione. What is more, neither George nor Eileen is “educated” as Thomas is, which adds an interesting layer not just of privileged skill, as one might expect, but of class to the novel. This is played out in interesting ways in a number of places on their journey together, and the siblings are fully overwhelmed at the eventual sight of the city towards the end of the book, a good opportunity for a description of it “through new eyes” from Buchanan. This position also licenses some colourful, and quite moving, descriptions of the Royal Academy of Learning when it is finally looms resplendent. Upon laying eyes on the place, George, in particular, is agog. Buchanan explains:

George gazed up at the architecture, his eyes wide. “You moved out of this?”
“No girls,” Thomas reminded him. [216]

Class is also at play at the Royal Academy of Learning itself, where one of Thomas' university friends is cleverly cast as a foppish but lovable blue-blood (Henry), while the other (Benjamin) is the lumbering and kindly son of a tradesman. Henry insists on introductions before helping the visitors with their bags:

He was several years older than Thomas and his clothes were both of better material and more finely cut than anyone else's in the room. His pale blond [sic] hair was immaculately coiffed, his face and nose thin and long and marred with a scar [from sword-fighting] that cut diagonally across them. He stepped in front of George and Eileen, the move simultaneously casual and elegant. “Well?” [200]

The characters of Benjamin and Henry are well developed and they provide colour, humour and contrast. But they are also important in providing a background against which George and Eileen, whose family could not afford to educate them, can explore their feelings of exclusion. This is a universal theme and it is interesting and entertaining, but Buchanan's purpose here is more serious: education should be for everyone.

Finally, the “small magics” of the title, similarly, receives careful and purposeful treatment. Rather than default to the standard literary division between “magical people” and “non-magical” people (i.e. wizards and “muggles”), Buchanan places his magic, as it were, everywhere and in almost every one. No great spells gush forth from the ends of skilfully wielded wands to drive his plot; rather, it is the threat that the “small magics,” normally distributed fairly evenly throughout the human population, might fall out of natural equilibrium that is the great fear behind this novel. This is a hugely interesting facet of this already very entertaining story. Again, Buchanan's treatment of the subject is fresh and creative, but his purpose is deadly serious. What would happen to the world if one man learned how to appropriate, and as a result of this knowledge, to centralise, everyone else's power for his own use? (Thomas's ability to “see” other people's magic is a unique and useful skill, and so the Bishop wants to appropriate Thomas' magic – and with it, this extra power – most of all.) History has shown that this thirst for power is a real threat in all human populations, and it is a theme of great importance. Buchanan's tale is a persuasive and nuanced allegory, cleverly cast in an entertaining and accessible medium.

If you were still not entirely convinced that Buchanan has turned out something fundamentally new with Small Magics, there is one feature of his book that separates it utterly and unequivocally from its predecessors: violence. In his penchant for violence, in his skill at choreographing complex and terrifying fight scenes, and in his interest in describing details such as the feelings of the killer in the moment of the infliction of death, and the smell, weight and texture of a cold, coagulating corpse in the harsh light the following day, Buchanan is no imitator. Here he stakes new territory, and his writing benefits hugely from his unlikely day job as a stage combat and fight director (he is a professionally trained swordsman, skilled at the use of numerous different types of swords and other combat equipment, and he also holds two black belts in Karate). This author knows swords and how to wield them, he has thrown people – and has been thrown – to the ground many times, and he has felt the impact of a thousand punches. This expertise and insight tangibly sets the quest and conflict sequences in Small Magics apart; physical realism leaps from the pages of Buchanan's fight scenes.

The fight scenes in Small Magics are quick, complicated, frequent and heart-stoppingly dangerous. It is worth mentioning also that magic does not feature in these conflicts: these are real rapier, dagger, and fist fights, featuring skilled and powerful “humans” pitted against other, equally skilled and powerful “humans”. The long, dangerous sequence involving all the central characters at the end of the book, in particular, is exceptionally well written. It is hugely skilfully conceived, the pace, texture and detail are excellent, and Buchanan expertly builds up reader desire so we are powerless to do anything but race through to the end of the book with the characters. Here a master fight writer is at work and this sequence alone warrants the purchase of this book.

The frequent and numerous combat scenes in Small Magics also create an opportunity for Buchanan to address the difficult problem of the real consequences of violence. He never preaches, and his delight in the graphic violence wrought in these sequences is tangible, but he does face up to the outcome of this fascination, writing truthfully about the inevitable concomitants of violence, including physical debilitation, death and, perhaps most interestingly, regret. It is worth mentioning that neither women nor children are spared in this book, and in this regard it is perhaps not a volume for the faint of heart. (Thomas' mother is beaten offstage by his father while he listens outside their house, for example; it is quite a disturbing moment.) Stephen King (one of Buchanan's favourite authors) this is not; but neither does Small Magics at all function on the level of Harry Potter. This is a book for everyone and its messages are important and timely. But these details mean that it will especially appeal to those interested in quest stories that promote universal ideologies, but who also think violence is exciting and perhaps even a little bit cool.

Small Magics as a volume might have benefited from one further glance from its editor: proof-readers missed a number of typos that were easily spotted by this reader. Also, the journey to the city featured perhaps one delay too many for me. I was already convinced of the quality and depth of the characters and I was excited about the possibility of the eventual dénouement that I knew awaited me at the end of the novel; I simply wanted them to get on with it. These small technical reservations aside, however, I would wholeheartedly recommend this interesting, amusing and exciting new book, which is an excellent read and deserves a wide audience. Buchanan is a skilled writer with a wonderfully descriptive, visual style, great comic timing and a talent for surprising and clever dialogue. Erik Buchanan's Small Magics is a brilliant novel with a promising future (the sequel, Cold Magics, is about to appear), and it marks the important début of a uniquely gifted writer.

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1 positive reader review(s) for Small Magics


Small Magics reader reviews

from Hamilton Ontario

Small Magics is a good, solid read about three friends who find themselves the only hope of stopping a great evil that is trying to dominate their land. The evil, doesn't see itself as evil and can't accept that it has forsaken its service to its god in favour of hypocrisy and a self-serving lust for power. The villain's rationalisations are all too real among those we call fanatics. All the characters are well sculpted and their interactions' believable. The book does become a bit slow in places for this reader's taste, but the action sequences are well crafted and over all it is as good or better then most of the fantasy books I have read. The world is well crafted and forms a good stage for the adventure. I'd recommend this one to anyone who wants an enjoyable read. It's good value for money.

7.5/10 from 2 reviews

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