It took me an unconscionably long time to get to Kat Howard’s latest novel An Unkindness of Magicians. I loved her first book, Roses and Rot—it reminded me of Charles de Lint in the very best sort of way—and thus, this was a day of release purchase for me. Why I didn’t get to it for months is beyond me.
At any rate—this was the book I read the week I was traveling last month—first on a work trip and then to ConFusion. In fact, I finished reading this in the lobby during the convention because I couldn’t put it down.
On its surface, An Unkindness of Magicians is about a magical competition—a Turning—among magic families in New York City. But dig a little deeper and this is a beautifully constructed exploration of power, privilege, and the too often unseen price paid for both.
Note: this review is a bit spoiler-ish.
The book opens with a woman performing a tremendous feat of magic—raising cars from the ground and replacing them with no damage and without anyone from the mundane world having noticed. This was a job interview—the oddest job interview in the history of job interviews, I am sure—for the position of champion to a candidate House.
This young woman, Sydney, is from the secretive House of Shadows, the House from which all the members of all the other Houses derive their magic.
And the way they get that magic is vile: each generation, each House makes a sacrifice to Shadows—a human sacrifice. That infant grows up in Shadows and their magic is slowly stripped from them and given to others. This is an incredibly painful process and usually once a sacrifice enters Shadows, they don’t leave. Sydney is only the second person to have escaped. But her escape isn’t without constraint; she still owes a debt and is beholden to obey Shadows through out the course of the Turning.
Sydney also has her own goal: destroy the House of Shadows.
That in and of itself would be plenty, but of course Howard isn’t quite done: magic is failing in odd ways and Sydney, over the course of the book, investigates—and discovers that something has been done to the spell that pulls magic from Shadows. The magic is being redirected elsewhere, leaving a shortage for everyone else.
Additionally, young women with marginal magic are turning up dead, their finger bones missing. One of those young women has a stalwart friend who will do whatever it takes to discover who killed her friend and ensure justice is served.
This all sounds disconnected, but these three plots are utterly dependent upon each other.
Sydney is a sacrifice to Shadows who has come to enact vengeance; the twisted spell is in the service of maintaining the existing power structure amongst the magical families; the murdered women are victimized by a young man who believes he is entitled to their lives and their magic by dint of his birth.
An Unkindness of Magicians is like one of those fancy clockwork figures from the 19th century—all sorts of tiny little parts, all interdependent, and if one gear is out of place or if a bit of dirt gets in the gearbox, then it stops working.
And as the book is structured, so it is plotted—magic is interdependent on the pain of people deliberately and methodically rendered both faceless and nameless.
The system of power and privilege that the magicians have constructed for themselves is both unkind and corrupt, so it goes without saying that pulling that structure down and creating space for something more equitable to potentially grow in its place, is going to be distressing and difficult to read. What I found most compelling about this book was how everyone was utterly complicit in the pain caused by the system, that they were willing to inflict tremendous harm upon others for their own benefit—and that so many of them did it unthinkingly, unknowingly.
This is by no means a happy book and the ending is quite bleak—but also necessary; no other ending would have worked.