A Criminal Magic hooked me from the start. A friend gave this to me for my birthday (apparently it was on my to-read list, not that I’d remember). I started it on Saturday, and 25 pages in I texted her to let her know she had picked well. Lee Kelly’s story of sorcerers labouring under a magic Prohibition in an alternative 1926 is just captivating. From parallel plot-lines to a careful, judicious use of magic, Kelly tells a story that is about love but isn’t necessarily a romance, a story that is about loss but isn’t necessarily about revenge, a story that is about rolling with the punches when you realize the universe is going to keep knocking you down.
The story opens with Joan Kendrick, an eighteen-year-old who has recently lost her mother. We learn more about the circumstances of her mother’s death, and why Joan feels so guilty, fairly soon into the book. For now, though, Joan reluctantly picks up the mantle of her magic and heads into Washington, D.C. with a stranger who is almost certainly a mobster because this is her family’s last chance to make enough money to avoid losing their house. Joan soon finds herself in a competition and experiment to narrow down 15 candidates into a circle of 7 sorcerers—all for the purpose of making better shine, of course.
Because in Kelly’s alternative 1926, it isn’t booze that’s illegal: it’s sorcery, and the intoxicating byproduct sorcerer’s shine. I love this premise. I also love that Kelly doesn’t spend too much time explaining how her magic works. We learn enough to understand plot points (magic doesn’t last longer than a day) and receive tantalizing hints that there is much more to learn, that magic is a far deeper and more intense phenomenon than this story can explore. Rather than falling down the rabbithole, however, and providing too much exposition or tangents that don’t make sense, Kelly wisely reins herself in and keeps things focused on the action.
The other protagonist, Alex Danfrey, is also a sorcerer down on his luck. With his father imprisoned for smuggling, Alex joins the Federal Prohibition Unit to use his skills for the government. But he has a chip on his shoulder and an ego to match, and he soon gets in trouble and gets manoeuvred into taking an undercover job. He finds himself infiltrating the same gang that Joan is working with. They don’t meet until well into the novel, and even then their lives only cross occasionally for another few chapters—but the payoff is great.
Sometimes, when an author splits the story equally across two characters and (eventually intersecting) plots like this, I’m not happy. I end up preferring one story to another and resenting the author for switching gears on me. That’s not the case here: I was always happy to return to the other’s story, with Kelly leaving me just enough from the previous protagonist to feel worried but not so much that I was resentful.
Kelly’s gangsters and mobsters are not lovable scoundrels, nor are they cartoon villains. They are dark, twisted, often violent people. Gunn comes across as so tightly-wound in his malevolence, with the long game he is playing and the way his interactions with Joan feel like he can barely contain an envy-inspired rage. Yet I appreciate, and frankly, am relieved, that Kelly never resorts to cheap devices (read: coercion, sexual violence, needlessly killing a character) just to demonstrate someone’s villainy. The same goes for Boss McEvoy, who enters the story with a reputation as a kingpin but whose role shifts markedly as we learn more about his operation.
Just when I thought I had this book figured out and could predict the ending, Kelly throws a few twists in there. I expected the sting not to go off as planned, of course. What I didn’t expect, though, was the way in which Joan so brilliantly comes into her own. This was totally my mistake, because Kelly foreshadows it so plainly in the first act of the novel when she is competing against/with other sorcerers! She reprises this crowning moment of awesome in the climax, seizing control of the moment when no one else will and making snap decisions with far-reaching consequences. If you had to make me choose between the two protagonists, Joan would be my favourite, hands down.
Though this book has elements of romance to it, I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s its principal component. I don’t want to go into spoilers for the end, so let’s just say that I’m pleased by the way Kelly resolves Joan and Alex’s situation. It’s a less conventional, though by no means an original, solution, and I like the tension that it creates. She sets us up for a sequel, which I’d happily read—yet if no sequel is ever forthcoming, I would still be satisfied with this book as a standalone.
In the end, I suspect that some people will see the magic or the plot or the characters here as somewhat shallow. I get those objections. Kelly’s narration and dialogue don’t always make the scene come alive. Yet I can’t deny that I was hooked from the get-go, and any flaws I can see in this book I was happy to ignore for the duration of reading it. A Criminal Magic is just a delightful, suspenseful story of mobs and magic and making hard choices not because you’re hard but because you’re only trying to survive.