Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians
The Harry Potter books were how I realized I love fantasy, and Lev Grossman's The Magicians remains one of my favorite novels to this day, a grown-up version that was released while I was in college. So the blurb of An Unkindness of Magicians was immediately appealing to me.
Change is coming to the Unseen World, and it's time for the tournament that New York City's magical elite use to determine who will lead them going forward. Sydney is the powerful, mysterious newcomer, but unbeknownst to the rest of the Unseen World, she hails from the House of Shadows, the blight that lets the Unseen World use magic without paying its cost. But something is wrong there, as magic begins to unravel with increasing frequency. Sydney must contend with spells gone horribly wrong and a serial killer out for her magic if she wants to win and get her revenge.
First off, I have to commend the cover artist on this one, because DAMN. If that isn't the most striking book cover I've seen in years. I know, I know, we're not supposed to judge based on covers, but we all do it anyway because we're visual creatures. Wow.
I've never read Kat Howard before, but I can tell that prose is one of her strengths. It's exquisite. But holy sentence fragments, Batman! Fragments can be really effective for emphasis, but this book is loaded with them, particularly in the beginning, and it makes the the book feel disjointed for me in places. It's a personal quibble, and YMMV, but it was enough to toss me out of the story in a few places.
On the flip side, my favorite thing about this book is the brutality of the story. This feels like a fairytale for adults, but in a very dark, different way than something like, say, All the Birds in the Sky. As mentioned above, The Magicians is the best thing I can compare it to, but with Hunger Games elements and some slavery undertones. Yeah, it's pretty dark. And when people die, they die in excruciating, horrific ways, not to mention that one of the viewpoint characters is a serial killer of women. We'll get to that.
This book has a lot of POV characters, and I'm honestly not convinced it needs all of them. Certainly the most important is Sydney. She's out to save herself and get rid of the House of Shadows, where she grew up tortured for her magic as part of the dark bargain the rest of the Unseen World has with the House. She's incredibly goal-driven (she's willing to kill her lover to achieve her goals), but she's not entirely selfish either - she does her best to rescue or grant quick deaths to the victims of magic gone wrong. Howard does a good job of portraying her in three dimensions and showing her growth as she realizes that there are still good people left in the world.
I wish I could say the same for some of the other characters, and it's why I wish she'd left well enough alone with her POVs. The book just isn't long enough to support all the plot action and this many POV character arcs.
Laurent is best after Sydney. His emotional arc pairs well with Sydney's as he discovers the Unseen World's horrible bargain, a bargain that he, as an outsider of sorts, never knew of. Ian falls a little flat for me, a heroic type that changes very little over the course of the novel. And ugh the serial killer. As the novel's most immediate, violent villain, he's probably an important POV to have, but it's definitely squicky to be in his head.
The head of House Merlin really didn't need to be a POV character, though. He reads a bit too much like a caricature, and I still have a lot of questions about his scenario despite his viewpoint sections. We probably also didn't need the head of House Prospero as a POV - it doesn't add much, and I would have preferred deeper exploration of, say, Ian than Miranda.
Plotting wise, the story is breathless. It packs quite a punch given how much Howard has stuffed into a fairly short length, so it leaps wildly from moment to moment. The ample section breaks add to that breathless pace; you're never with one character or one scene for long. While this is nice in places (we never stay long with the icky serial killer, for example), some slower moments would have balanced the plot. Some things (like one of Sydney's return trips to the House of Shadows) don't pack the emotional weight that they would if the story had more breathing room.
Worldbuilding wise, Howard has a really cool core concept here. I just found myself wishing for more. Howard alludes briefly to there being other communities of magic, but then quickly turns off that line of conversation. It's clear she was crunched for space to cram in her plot, yet it begs some questions which could have heavily impacted her story: the House names (yes yes, clever references) seem better suited to England than NYC. If this society is so screwed up and there are other societies elsewhere, why on earth did Verenice, another House of Shadows escapee, come back to NYC? Is there some kind of overseeing body? Surely these communities have to interact in some way. Why is the Turning even a thing? Is that dictated by magic (doesn't appear to be?) or just this society?
The book feels very insular as a result - but it's hard to be that insular in the 21st century, especially when this is set in a city like New York. The more I pick at the world, the more it falls down.
If it sounds like I'm being rather harsh on this one, it's only because I love the core idea of this book so much, and I really wanted it to be a 5-star read. It's not, sadly, but An Unkindness of Magicians is still very enjoyable and I would still recommend it for people who enjoy books about modern-day magic. I'll pin my hopes for a 5-star read on a sequel.