An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Given how awesome Roses and Rot was, it was only a matter of time before I tried out Kat Howard’s next full length novel, a book built on a truly intriguing premise.

There is an unseen world hidden among New York’s wealthy elite, a world where old established houses of magicians manoeuvre for power and status. Every twenty years there is a Turning; a time when fortune’s wheel turns and a series of formal challenges and magical duels determine standing among the magical houses, a time when new houses rise and alliances are made. The Turning has come early, after just thirteen years rather than the usual twenty, and the talk of the unseen world is the rivalry between the ascendant house Merlin and their rival house Prospero. With Grey Prospero, disinherited son of Miranda Prospero competing for himself, and Ian Merlin spiting his father by competing on behalf of Prospero, the stage seems set for a remarkable series of duels.

Into this web of intrigue comes Sydney, an unknown magician with unprecedented power and ability, competing on behalf of the outsider Laurent Beauchamps. Yet Laurent is not Sydney’s only employer, as she is also working for the powerful sorceress Shara, Avatar of the House of Shadows, a dark and troubling part of the Unseen world which most people want to simply forget. Yet Sydney has plans of her own, plans which go beyond both Laurent’s benign desire to have the snobbish houses recognize outsiders, and Shara’s sinister plot to gain personal power and status, plans which will rock the unseen world to its foundations, expose all the dirty little secrets and change the very fabric of magic itself, since the one thing Sydney desires above all others is revenge.

There is something undoubtedly cinematic about An Unkindness of Magicians. From the first moment when the stylishly dressed and beautiful Sydney levitates a line of New York traffic to prove her magical abilities to Laurent, to the quick cuts between lots of cool, attractive people in awesomely opulent surroundings having significant conversations about the Turning and strategy and house alliances, I can almost see HBO advertising this as their next series: “Mad Men meets Game of Thrones meets Harry Potter.”

This is both a blessing and a curse. As in Roses and Rot Howard gets straight to the point and doesn’t overload us with exposition about how the Unseen world interacts with “mundanes”, giving us an idea of how things work very quickly, introducing each of her major players and letting us know what their motivations are. The problem is that everything feels highly superficial. The characters have pointed introductions, but rarely get time to breathe or even discuss matters beyond the immediate Turning, indeed other than Sydney herself and possibly Laurent, I know very little about these characters day to day lives, or what being in the unseen world is actually like. Other than duelling with magic, occasional utilitarian spells and some rather interesting hints about how magicians and their houses interact, we get very little idea about what magic is or how it works. In Roses and Rot, discussing the shadowy world of fairy from the perspective of people new to it this sort of mystery was a definite plus, here however, where we need to quickly understand political and magical intrigues and the rules of tournaments in order to follow the action, such ambiguity is something of a hindrance.

I don’t know if Howard was having troubles with other commitments whilst writing the novel, but much of the style felt extremely brief, almost perfunctory. Whilst Howard’s knack for poetry hadn’t entirely left her, and there were still occasional moments of beauty, even whilst describing the uses of magic Howard often seemed to default to a clipped short hand, just talking of someone “casting a spell” or “weaving magic around them,” as though “magic” were some solid and easily understood substance which didn’t need description, like baking flour.

This contributed to a second problem with the uses of magic, that being the setup of a tournament. Magical duelling is a wonderful concept when done well, from Brandon Sanderson’s systematic, game like moves and counter moves, to the mix of spell hurling and physical combat in Harry Potter, to the gorgeously poetic battles of songs of power described in Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Howards duels are unfortunately quite a disappointment, since despite the odd flash of a particularly apt phrase, the duels are brief, almost cursory. This means, despite all that hangs on each duel, moments which should by rights be extremely tense, such as when two characters with personal history confront each other, often simply fall flat. Part of this is due to writing style, however another major part is due to character, in particular Sydney herself.

Whilst An Unkindness of Magicians has more an ensemble feeling, Sydney is unquestionably the principle character here. Unfortunately, Sydney is (to quote my own article), a succeedinator of the first order. Extremely beautiful, ever poised, and so adept in magic she wins every duel with a single, devastating knockout punch, ensuring that the first and most major casualty of the Turning is any kind of tension.

Of course, theoretically Sydney is a survivor of a pretty damn evil past, and still under the thumb of the malevolent Shara, however neither of these factors really made too much difference to Sydney, since they never really got in the way of what Sydney was trying to do; the ease with which she dealt with Shara during one confrontation almost made me sorry for the evil magician.

The sad thing is, Howard in one scene does approach making Sydney vulnerable. When she meets a survivor with a similar dark history to hers, sharing experiences and revealing small facts about herself such as her liking for sweets since they were something she’d been denied all her life, however as with much in the book, this was dealt with too briefly, and just as I was beginning to warm to Sydney as an actual human being, she went off to righteously smite once again. This is another area where Magicians measures up rather badly to Howard’s previous novel, since Marin and Imogen were both far more damaged, more human and more relatable.

Other characters whom Sydney interacted with suffered similar issues with superficiality. Ian Merlin, Sydney’s lover barely registers at all, despite an early attempt to show some of his motivations. Indeed, “lover,” here is being a little too generous since they get together by Sydney literally saying “let’s go to bed”, and any sort of emotional connection between them is more assumed than experienced. This means scenes which should be tense, such as a threatened duel between Sydney and Ian just fail to make an impression. Were Ian female, the very lack of character and instant sexual gratification for the hero would probably make him look like an uninteresting love object of the “Bond girl” type, and unfortunately a reverse in gender here didn’t make his basic function in the plot any the more significant.

Fortunately, despite Sydney there were several other likable characters in the book, albeit I do wish we’d seen more of them. Harper, a lawyer trying to find access to the Unseen world to get revenge for her best friend’s murder, and Madison, Harper’s titular boss who owns a weird magical law firm are both characters I wish we’d spent more time with, particularly since neither are ultra-powerful magicians so might actually be in danger.

Laurent is also that rare thing, a basically nice guy, however Howard made a major misstep with his character by making him a millionaire. It is clear that with her depiction of a clique of rich, powerful, beautiful people playing their insular little games, wilfully unaware of the costs those games have upon others, Howard is drawing some disturbing parallels to the way power in our own world works. However, rather than making Laurent someone with a poor, or even average life style and income who happens to have magic and is looked down on for his lack of status, Laurent’s surroundings and lifestyle are just as luxurious, thanks to his magical ability to be lucky on the stock market.

This means that Laurent’s complaints of “being looked down on” and his desire to “open up the Unseen world to everyone” read far more as the complaints of the nouveau riche vs old money, rather than a rebellion against established wealth and privilege, quite a contrast to say the depiction of the Weasleys and Malfoys in Harry Potter.

Plot wise matters do move along at a good pace and keep your interest, however, despite a murdering psychopath, fatal duels and a conspiracy of torture, Sydney’s invincibility and everyone’s enforced, skin deep coolness made it extremely difficult to feel any concern for what was actually happening. Indeed, I rather wish Howard had taken the time to kill a main character (even someone we liked), just to make both the reader, and the invincible Sydney sit up and take notice.

The conclusion was all in all a little disappointing. Most of the book’s villains turned out to be damp squibs; in both the Harry Potter and firework sense. The psychopath was depicted as so profoundly useless, several times he wound up helpless and at the mercy of other characters, meaning his defeat was such an inevitability it was quite the anti-climax. Likewise, another villain was defeated due to an exclamation so hackneyed and obvious I wondered if it was meant to be comical. Whilst Howard did attempt a dramatic sting in the book’s tale, said sting might have felt more dramatic if I cared more about the characters involved, or if perhaps the status quo had been shaken with people losing their hundreds and millions of dollars and amazingly lush life styles, rather than just their membership in an Unseen world which at rock bottom still feels more like a club for the super-rich, than a hidden world of magic and marvels.

Whilst An Unkindness of Magicians had some good points, a couple of likable characters, some disturbingly pointed parallels to reality, a fast pace and the odd poetic phrase, in general a cursory writing style, a succeedinator hero, useless villains and not nearly enough time spent on its magic meant it was mostly a disappointment, especially compared to the brilliance of Howard’s first novel. Indeed, the shift in quality was so marked, I wonder if Howard herself was working under time constraints or experiencing some troubles in her life.

Either way, I’ll be hoping Howard picks matters up next time around, since the potential is definitely still there for Howard to create something truly astounding, it’s just a shame that this wasn’t quite it.

6/10 Magic magic magic, it's a rich man's world

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