In my review of The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner I talked about how I loved the world-building, but found the story wanting. With A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly, I have the opposite problem. I love the story, but found the world-building wanting.
The year is 1926 and an alternate America finds itself in the midst of Prohibition. The difference is that Prohibition isn’t meant to stop people from drinking booze, but from making magic. Specifically what the government is trying to outlaw is “shine”, a magical elixir that can give you an unbelievable high.
Our two main characters are Joan Kendrick and Alex Danfrey. Joan is a young sorcerer who lives in rural Virginia. She gave up making magic after her mother died and instead helps her uncle run their shine room, which they keep behind their liquor bar (and yes I got a chuckle at the irony of such a situation). On the verge of losing their home, Joan takes up the offer to work with one of Washington DC’s street gangs, the Shaws, to help corner the shine market in the city.
Alex, meanwhile, is the son of a convicted criminal and one of the best sorcerers in the Prohibition Unit, but his temper often gets the better of him. What he really wants is to restore his family’s good name and when he is offered the opportunity to go undercover in the Shaw organization, he agrees. He quickly makes his way up the ranks, becoming the right-hand sorcerer of the Shaw boss himself and that is where he meets Joan. As the two begin a relationship, the DC underworld threatens to tear itself apart and take the two young sorcerers and everyone they care about with them.
So what did I like about A Criminal Magic? To be honest it was an enjoyable urban fantasy set in era that is perfect for drama. Joan and Alex are both likable characters who nevertheless are forced down a dark, windy path as they continue to justify the awful things they do to find peace and security. The cast of secondary characters are also diverse and interesting. Furthermore, the ending was well-done. I really thought I knew where Lee was going with the story and instead I was surprised in the twist she threw at me in the end, which is always a mark of a good story.
As for the world of A Criminal Magic…it is really just 1920s America with magic. Some may not be bothered by this at all, but being the alternate historian that I am, I felt there was way too much paralleling of our own history. There really isn’t much different from how DC or the rest of United States looked in our history. Now with alternate history you can get away at times with not explaining how the world became different. When it comes to inherently implausible changes, like magic, you need to change more than just the laws of physics to make the timeline interesting.
For example, I’m not exactly sure how magic works in this world and neither do most of the characters. It seems to be based on genetics, but there was little information about how long magic has been around. Is it a recent phenomenon or has it been with humanity since the beginning of civilization? We do know that America has a bad history with magic, which implies that their are nations that have good relations with magic. Are there autocracies covering Europe where sorcerers rule as kings? Maybe that explains why Americans hate magic: their ancestors crossed the Atlantic to get away from it.
Granted this is all speculation, because there was only one scene where we saw a legitimate negative reaction to sorcery. Meanwhile, most of the sorcerers we meet come from rural areas…which is interesting considering that in our timeline prohibition against alcohol got a lot of support from rural Protestants. In the world of A Criminal Magic, however, rural America is dependent on magic in many ways (like medicine), while the cities seem to be able to get on without it. Its reason like those above that I feel there really is a fleshed out alternate history somewhere, but I can’t confirm whether its the author hinting at something bigger or me just filling in the gaps of what was left out.
Admittedly its not a complete parallel to our own history. Shine isn’t just a stand in for alcohol. It effects people more like heroin or meth, which makes the reader empathize more with the reasons Prohibition happened in this timeline. Plus there may even be real reasons to fear sorcerers besides the addictive liquids they produce. In one scene we see a group of sorcerers created a pocket universe…and then crush it with people still inside. Perhaps fear of magic is just a natural survival instinct on this Earth.
While I wish Lee showcased more of the world in her novel, I still found A Criminal Magic to be an enjoyable read that I can recommend to others. If you like a good story about sorcerers working with crime bosses to take over America, then go pick up a copy before they disappear off the shelves.