In A Criminal Magic, Lee Kelly creates a world in which the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned sorcery rather than alcohol. Kelly combines remarkable creativity, imagination, and insight into the human condition, blending fantasy with history and ending up with a complex, entertaining, compelling novel.
Naturally, the passage of A Criminal Magic’s fictional amendment results in the same response as its historical analogue: sorcerers are thrust into the criminal underworld, brewing an illegal ruby-red elixir. This “shine,” as it’s known, is smuggled by gangsters into “shining rooms” across the country, fronted by legal liquor bars and raided by members of the Federal Prohibition Unit who can’t be bribed into looking the other way. Drinking shine gives reality a surreal glow, causes a wide range of short-term pleasant sensations, and can lead to crippling addiction. Magic has long been feared and hated in America, bringing to mind the infamous Salem witch-trials and other campaigns of xenophobia in this country’s history, though those events are not specifically mentioned. But magic is a wild, naturally occurring force, seemingly able to direct events and people toward unknowable ends. Magically-inclined families tend to stay isolated, resulting in peculiar strains of sorcery (weather forecasting, manipulation of matter, etc.) and methods of spellcasting which are completely unique unto themselves, much like an inherited jawline or heirloom gourd seeds.
Joan Kendrick is an untrained sorcerer tending bar above her shine-addled Uncle Jed’s backwoods shining room, which is really no more than an enlarged closet with some filthy cots. They’re in desperate need of money in order to forestall their cabin’s foreclosure, and salvation arrives in the form of Harrison Gunn, a hard-eyed man looking for sorcerers to participate in an experiment he’s orchestrating in Washington, D.C. Joan jumps at the chance to improve her family’s fortunes, and as she plumbs the depth of her talent, discovers the potential of her forbidden maternal heritage. Boss McEvoy leads The Shaw Gang and masterminds shine smuggling in the D.C. area, and under his watch Gunn runs the Red Den, a posh place for posh people who want to escape reality for a few hours.
Alex Danfrey, a trainee with the Prohibition Unit, happens to be a gifted sorcerer with a criminal past. To test his loyalty, the Feds send him undercover into The Shaw Gang, participating in smuggling runs up and down the Maryland-Virginia coastline and then reporting back on illicit shipments of ghost-tainted bottles of Bahamian obi or bright blue fae dust from Ireland. Rumors of changes at the Red Den send Alex there under an additional layer of false pretense, and he discovers a troupe of seven sorcerers brewing the most powerful shine ever known — but shine reverts to pure water after 24 hours, as any and all magical effects will fade after a day passes, and Gunn’s frustration with the product’s short shelf life leads him down dangerous paths of thought and action. McEvoy is content with his localized operations, but Gunn has something more ambitious in mind, and Joan holds the key to making it all happen.
A Criminal Magic’s chapters alternate between Joan and Alex’s first-person perspectives, and they have completely different narrative voices, which is a truly remarkable feat. Joan is conversational, emotional, and intuitive; Alex is more structured, classically educated, and calculating. Each has a rhythm and cadence which suits their character as they tell two gradually merging halves of the same story. Joan provides insight into the Red Den, along with her turmoil over abandoning her family and using her magical powers. Alex shows the reader the larger world outside the Red Den: the smuggling, the Feds, and his resentment over feeling used by everyone in his life. Kelly keeps the plotting tight, even with dual points of view: every action, event, and conversation serves to drive momentum forward, hustling the reader toward the heart-pounding climax. Secondary and tertiary characters are given a few quick strokes of description, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps while those characters become fully alive through their actions and pitch-perfect dialogue. While there is a fair number of supporting players, each one was distinct, and I didn’t have any trouble recalling their identifying characteristics or motivations.
Throughout the novel, Kelly’s world-building is spot-on and well thought-out. There’s no reason to think that aspects of her fictional society and technology would necessarily be different from known history, since magic is both ephemeral and forbidden. No flying down the Capitol Mall on a broomstick while chatting with one’s congressman! The only area in which magic had been allowed to cross over into “normal” life was in producing government-sanctioned medicine during the outbreak of Spanish Flu, and even that has been outlawed. Alcohol is still legal in A Criminal Magic, so it makes perfect sense to put up a storefront with a bar and hide the shining room in the basement, behind false walls and enchantments. If shine must be smuggled, it follows that other magical substances would also be brought in from elsewhere to suit people’s needs. Sure, they have horrible side effects, like paranoia or hallucinations or haunting by evil spirits. Sure, weak shine might be doctored with red paint so it looks like a stronger, more potent product. But addicts crave their fix, regardless of the dangers, and there’s always profit to be had at their expense.
A Criminal Magic is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and its conclusion is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve seen in a while; I honestly couldn’t have asked for better. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of alternate histories, the Roaring Twenties, and excellent craftsmanship.
I loved the magic in Lee Kelly’s A Criminal Magic, especially the process of making “sorcerer’s shine.” The image, which occurs throughout the book, of water bubbling and churning, ultimately flushing deep red as it is imbued with magic, tickled my imagination. I enjoyed the idea that the Volstead Act prohibited magic, not booze, and that, like the actual Volstead Act, certain exceptions are made for certain types of magic, mostly healing spells… and that innovative gangsters find a way to corrupt that, in order to make a profit.
A Criminal Magic, originally published in 2016, conjures up a gangster-and-bootlegger tale where the contraband is magic “shine,” a powerful intoxicant whose effects last only for one hour. “Shine” cannot be stored or transported because the magic fades after one day (borrowing from British Isles folklore), so a criminal gang that found a way to store and transport it would increase both their territory and their profits, and this scheme is at the heart of the book.
Joan Kendrick is an orphan who has set aside her own powerful magic after a tragic event. Alex Danfrey is the son of a disgraced tycoon who sold his healing spells to gangsters, and who drew Alex into his criminal activities. Alex managed to escape blame and now works for the Unit, an Untouchables-like anti-crime group, but Alex is deeply conflicted, and when he goes undercover in the gang that has scooped up Joan to work for them, his conflicts bubble to the surface. Meanwhile, Joan is forced to accept her own power, as she is pulled deeper into the web of Gunn, a ruthless mid-level crime boss for the Shaw gang. Of course, the beautiful Joan and the hunky Alex are also drawn to one another and when circumstances throw them even more closely together they stop trying to fight the attraction.
The gangsters are plausibly awful. While Gunn is driven, the captain of the Shaws and the leader of the D Street gang are convincingly corrupt and heartless, driven by a thirst for profit and power. Along with way we meet a few other smuggler groups and see different levels of criminality and honor.
As Jana pointed out, the two first-person narrators sound very different from one another, a feat that is difficult to accomplish, and I’m impressed at Kelly’s ability to pull this off.
I liked an awful lot about A Criminal Magic, especially the magical performances put on in the “magic haven” called the Red Den, where people come to see a true magic show and then drink shine. The “high” of magic shine is well depicted and it is easy to believe that this elixir, like magic itself, might become addictive. Tiny, relentless anachronisms kept piling up, though, and soon flattened my willing suspension of disbelief. The story is set in 1926. At first I was willing to let decade-specific drug-slang go because it seemed believable that people would refer to the effects of shine as a “high.” I had a little more trouble with “trippy” and “trip.” Joan fears that if she fails at the demands Gunn makes, she’ll “go home in a body bag.” (Wouldn’t it have been, “in a pine box?”) Alex refers to his father’s business as “Pharma spells” and I glitched; when he goes out on a moonshine run, the driver “takes the next exit,” and I choked, but the worst one, I think, was simply “psychedelic,” a word which appears in use no earlier than the 1956 that I can find. This is alongside Roaring Twenties props like Model-Ts and fedoras. By the middle of the book I was feeling less like a partner with the writer in her world and more like the mark in a con game. Fortunately, the momentum of the plot kept me reading, and the book came to a tense, suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. The ending is sad, but open-ended enough that there can easily be a sequel or sequels if Kelly desires.
This may seem shallow, but I read the 2017 trade paperback edition from Saga Press and I do want to comment on the cover. The cover beautifully evokes the magic in this story, and I’m glad they chose a translucent silvery liquid in the martini glass instead of red. It looks more magical, and red liquid in a cocktail glass would inevitably steer some browsers into the realm of vampire fiction. Well done.
I was satisfied but not completely won over by A Criminal Magic because this world never felt like the Roaring Twenties to me. Still, it’s worth reading for the suspenseful plot and the great descriptions of magic.
This sounds great, and the author is a lawyer, which adds some heft to the legal aspects. I’ll have to read it too!
I think you’ll like it, Tadiana! I’d love to hear your perspective on the characters, especially since they have to do so many questionable things.