I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
Published by Saga Press on September 26 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: A beautifully written and conceived tale of rival magicians, but with too many characters and ideas, it just seemed too big for a single volume.
I have to admit it was my husband who “got” the title of this book. He took one look at the cover and said, “An Unkindness of Magicians. Is that like a murder of crows?” And just like that, several things fell into place. Indeed the title makes perfect sense. This is a story about a group of magicians living in New York City, who are divided into magical “houses.” They live and thrive in the Unseen World, a secret world where magic is commonplace and hidden from “mundanes.” I also have to admit that I didn’t love this as much as I wanted to. I’ve been excited about it for months, having adored Howard’s debut, Roses and Rot, and the cover especially evoked images of a strange and dangerous world. But I can boil my feelings down into one observation: An Unkindness of Magicians is like a fantasy trilogy that’s been stuffed into one book. This story is packed with wonderful world-building and fascinating characters, but the execution is simply too rushed. Howard has come up with a story that deserves time and care and detail, but unfortunately none of those things are present in the finished product. But there are story elements that I loved, which I’ll talk about shortly.
Howard’s story is complex and layered, so I’ll try my best to sum up the basics for you. Sydney is an unknown magician who comes out of nowhere just in time for the next Turning, a once-every-twenty-years (or so) magical tournament where Houses are pitted against each other in magical duels, with the end result being that the ruling House may change depending on who is left standing at the end of the competition. Houses are allowed to hire a contracted champion of the house to participate on their behalf, and Sydney is immediately hired by Laurent Beauchamps to represent his House, after a spectacular display of magic.
When the Turning begins, the challenges between houses are fairly benign. Magicians gather to watch the duel and later they vote on the winner. But as the tournament progresses, the challenges become lethal. Losing a duel could mean death, and the challenges between Houses start to take on deeper and more sinister meanings.
We also begin to learn more about Sydney and where she came from. Taken as a small child away from her family, Sydney grew up in a terrible place called the House of Shadows, the source of a magician’s magical ability. There she was tortured, along with many other children, and their pain and sacrifice made the magic of Shadows grow stronger. But Sydney has done the nearly impossible: she has broken out of Shadows, although she is still paying back her debt to the House and the head of Shadows, an evil woman named Shara. Sydney knows that winning the Turning will allow her to break free from Shadows forever.
But something is going wrong with magic and it’s starting to fail. As Sydney continues to win her challenges, the magic is getting more and more dangerous, and Sydney’s enemies will do anything to stop her.
Howard’s writing is just as beautiful and lush as it was in Roses and Rot. Despite my use of the word “lush,” her style is fairly simple without going overboard, and it’s perfectly suited to this story. Many of the things that happen are horrific, and Howard’s evocative prose simply makes those things even more horrible (which is a good thing!)
I also loved so many of the ideas in this book. The House of Shadows, the evil place where children are kept as slaves and tortured in order to create strong magic, was a brilliant idea, made even more so by the fact that Sydney has become strong enough to escape it. Many of the spells that magicians cast are based on finger and hand gestures, and so the idea is that the finger bones store the most concentrated magic. I won’t go into details, but there are those who would literally kill to increase their magic supply, and let’s just say they know where to find the best magic.
Another of my favorite world-building elements was the creation of the House, the place where each magical family lives. In this story, Houses are almost living, breathing entities, who take on the magic of their owners and act as servants, providing the people who live there with whatever they need. As Sydney eventually proves, a House’s magic can be changed, and there are several scenes with the House Prospero that nearly brought me to tears.
Which brings me to the part of this review where I talk about what didn’t work for me. The fascinating details about the Houses and their relationship with their owners wasn’t developed nearly as much as I wanted it to be. Likewise, the main plot of the Turning was unsatisfying in so many ways. On one hand, I love stories about magical competitions–and there are a lot of them out there!–but in this case, the duels between magicians were never given the page time they deserved. In fact, the duels were almost afterthoughts, most of the time. Howard’s descriptions of the spells used in the tournament were spectacular. Magicians can not only levitate objects, but they can change the weather, influence nature, and make weapons out of almost anything. But where I expected a challenge to last at least several pages, most were often wrapped up in mere paragraphs. And even though the duels turn dangerous and deadly, I was never worried about any of the characters.
And speaking of the characters, they had so much potential! But there were so many of them that it would be impossible to completely develop each one. I was confused most of the first quarter of the story, simply because I couldn’t keep them straight. (Also, there is a “Miranda” and a “Madison,” and I was forever mixing them up.) Much like a Shakespearean tragedy, the relationships among the characters are complex, with family members being cast out, brothers and sisters at odds with each other, and more. Add in some characters who don’t even have very much magic, but play important parts in the story, and you have quite a bit to be confused about. Sydney was the best drawn character by far, but there were others that I loved whose backstories were only glossed over. This felt like an epic fantasy, but it’s hard to tell such a meaty story in a mere 350 pages.
But still. I will always read Kat Howard’s next book. She’s just too good, and I honestly don’t want to miss whatever her fertile imagination comes up with next.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.