Recently, I listened to the podcast version of Kat Howard’s story “The Green Knight’s Wife,” based on the early English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Reading An Unkindness of Magicians made put me in mind of that story. I’m not sure what it means for a novel to be self-referential, but I think, through her short fiction, Howard has matured as a writer in a significant way since her debut novel Roses and Rot.
An Unkindness of Magicians is the story of greed, betrayal, and the price of the impossible. Played out through a magic-controlled contest called The Turning, it encompasses the events before and during a series of duels between magical Houses, the winner of which contest will reign as head of the Unseen World of magic based in contemporary New York City. The Houses–Merlin, Dee, Prospero–evoke all those fantasy stories on which we as readers have grown up, but magic, in this world, is not the whimsical force of good or mischief one finds in Harry Potter, or even the esoteric alchemy of Dee and Flamel and Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer. Magic, in this world, cuts like a knife, and only those most willing to cut will survive.
Miranda Prospero has only recently begun putting her house in order since the death of her husband at the last turning; Laurent Beauchamps hopes to do well enough in the Turning to establish his own house; Ian Merlin switches sides for reasons only he knows. Into the fray steps a woman of unknown power, an unknown herself to the Unseen World, and yet she is obviously very familiar with it. Petty grievances will be exorcised, powerful magics unleashed, and beneath it all, trouble brews. Magicians may hide themselves from the non-magical, but someone is watching, someone knows too much. The question is, who will crack first.
Though the novel takes place over a relatively short span of time, the narrative jumps around a lot, through multiple points of view, stopping only for important events. There is no filler in this novel, which makes the plot feel even more razor sharp, colder, and unfeeling. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of feeling, only that they are left to the reader to find, rather than strung along metaphors of sentiment. Howard’s prose is sparse but, like her short fiction, precise; it evokes exactly the image it means to and is, in that way, satisfying to read. One knows, while reading this novel, that they are in the presence of an artist.
The denouement, though, leaves this reader somewhat bewildered. This is a novel of pain, of what selfishness and self-regard reap, and yet at the end of it all one wonders if there should not, in the end, be at least some healing. That the fate of the Unseen World is left in the hands of one who has suffered most at its beck is fitting, and yet does that person not deserve some amount of happiness? I suppose it is in the hands of each reader to decide.