An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

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.

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The Tuesday List: PotterNoMore

Yes, that’s right, I am not really a big fan (or much of a fan at all) of Harry Potter.  This is not to say that it’s poorly written, and not perfectly capable of being beloved by millions, it’s just not my thing.  So this is an attempt at a list of magical schools, or worlds, or people, etc, that are great alternatives to Harry Potter and the general magical Rowling world.

Disclaimer, these books are written for adults, with possible ya crossover interest, so adjust expectations accordingly.

  1. Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

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Probably I’ve put this in a Tuesday List before, but whatever.  It’s magical, it’s a school, it’s got really interesting characters with a whole bunch of motivations, and just as much creepiness as you want to read into it.  Also Kat Howard is a really excellent writer with a new novel out (An Unkindness of Magicians), and some very compelling short fiction including “Translatio Corporis” and “The Green Knight’s Wife.”

2. The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This is a fantasy of manners novel in which magical abilities are something that can help and hinder, and that really play off gender and class structures in a way that is just as interesting as the unfolding drama of the story itself.  A young woman grows up with both an interest in science and telekinetic abilities, neither of which conform to the expectations of her family, which is for her to go to the city, come out, meet an eligible man, and marry.  But when the demons of the past, in the form of a telekinetic magician and former lover of her imperious aunt come to town, everything changes and Antonina must learn to trust herself.

3. Los Nefilim (trilogy), by T. Frohock

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Comprising three novellas (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, The Second Death), Los Nefilim has one of the most interesting magic systems I’ve ever encountered.  The two magical races who inhabit the world are the Nefilim–angels– and Daimons, who have been at odds since the beginning of existence.  Music and light are how they make magic, and Diago Alvarez is a gifted musician who wants none of the war between the two races.  The only problem is, in 1930s Spain, war is brewing in both the human and magical worlds, and Diago may be the only one who can do anything about it.

4. Finishing School, (4-book series), by Gail Carriger

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What’s better than a school set in a magical world?  A school set in a magical world with steampunk.  This series also takes itself (and the fate of the world) a lot less seriously, while really spinning the alternate victorian thing.  And it’s still got its basic dose of colonizer, majority white except in cases where it’s really “warranted” logic down, so you won’t miss that if you read this instead of Harry Potter.

I jest.  But not really.  I loved the jokes about clothing and food and manners, but holy god you’ve really got to have a good gag reflex to set anything in Victorian England (and the empire) these days.

5. Spiritwalker (trilogy), by Kate Elliott

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Hey, I had to get my Kate Elliott endorsement in there somewhere, didn’t I?  So this a series in which a young woman discovers a birthright that she never could have expected, and also has to deal with the  usual societal expectations, and also a war, and also it’s an alt-history in which the countries and empires we expect to see by the Victorian period never exist, because the Roman Empire didn’t fall out quite the way we remember it, and also there are elemental magics and magical families and it’s a pre-industrial revolution gaslamp fantasy setting somewhere along the lines of His Dark Materials and yet completely unique at the same time.  A lot of fun, with a great narrative voice and a really good jumping off point for someone who wants to get into fantasy but doesn’t know what they like yet.

Short Fiction I’ve Enjoyed Lately, Oct 2017

Hey, this is my semi-regular post where I throw a bunch of short fiction at you, so here goes.

The first few are from the recently released New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, which I checked out from my local library.

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“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
“Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
“The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu
“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A. C. Wise
“Tiger Baby” by JY Yang

The next few are from Uncanny Magazine (uncannymagazine.com)

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“The Green Knight’s Wife” by Kat Howard (Uncanny Magazine Podcast Ep 13B)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Ep 13A)
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” by E. Lily Yu (Uncanny Magazine Podcast Ep 12B)

And the last one is a story I’ve talked about in brief on this blog, originally published by Apex Magazine (apex-magazine.com)

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“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse

The Tuesday List: Parallelisms

What if you could step out of this world, the “real” world, and into another?  All the books on this list imagine just that, in their own way.

1. Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

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At a retreat for artists, where other worlds are explored through visual art, music, writing, Imogen discovers that there is another world waiting just beyond the borders of the property, and is confronted by the question of what she would do, when offered the chance at not only a glimpse of this world, but success beyond her dreams.

2. A Daughter of No Nation, A.M. Dellamonica

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This one is actually the second in a series, but somehow managed to slip past my orderly reading practices.  Sophie returns to the world of Stormwrack, made up of brief archipelagos of land among the wilds of the oceans.  Magic is involved, and a lot of nautical journeying.

3. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E.Schwab

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Follow Kell and his magical coat as he moves between red, gray, and white London, smuggling magical items between worlds, until he meets with Lila in grey London and is confronted by true darkness.

4. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

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This isn’t really a novel about slipping between parallel worlds, but about the parallelisms that happen when artifacts of one life bleed into another’s, when life in one’s personal world becomes more than they can bear and only slipping into someone else’s life offers and succor.

5. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho

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Cho moves the faery story into the 21st century with this novel of magic and sorcery in early empire Great Britain, in which a new Sorcerer Royal, former African slave Zacharias Wythe, is tasked with finding the reason for the decline of magic in Britain who runs head on into a young woman, Prunella Gentleman, determined to make her way in the world and learn the true story of her parentage and magical inheritance.

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

What
is the difference between good and good enough?  Sisters Imogene and Marin have been asking themselves this
question nearly their entire lives. 
Imogen is a budding novelist, Maren a professional ballet dancer; both
are looking for that one break that will take them from maybe to
break-out.  Enter Melete, a
prestigious artists’ retreat where creators in nearly every discipline go to
focus solely on their craft, and sometimes leave with everything they ever
dreamed of.

Roses and Rot is a slow spiral, deeper
into Imogen’s past and the otherworldly atmosphere at Melete.  Told by Imogen, who is interested in
fairy tales, layer after layer is peeled back from a world that is not what it
seems, much in the way that children shed their fancies and imaginings on the
way to adulthood. 

It would be easy
to compare this novel to Neil Gaiman’s work, and though it shares many
similarities in tone and atmosphere—particularly to his later work—Howard has
crafted a story that interrogates the supernatural aspects with which many
readers are fascinated, while staying firmly grounded in the lives of the
people experiencing the very real events in which they are embroiled.  Because some facts and experiences are
all too real, particularly the Imogen and Marin’s painful childhood with an
abusive mother. 

This is a novel
that finds whimsy and beauty in the greater world while at the same time always
remembering that darkness exists in a very visceral way.  Readers looking for a fantasy novel
that doesn’t flinch from dark topics while still treating them with sensitivity
will enjoy Howard’s take on fairy tales and art.  Those looking for urban fantasy with a
strong contemporary feel will enjoy Howard’s worldbuilding and style.  Those who enjoy stories that push the
boundaries between fiction and metafiction are encouraged to check out this
deeply character-driven fantasy novel.