Wizard tournaments and wizard duels are standard fare in fantasy now, and Kat Howard puts the concept to good use in her fast-paced An Unkindness of Magicians. Published in 2017, the story follows a group of families based in Manhattan, who call themselves the Unseen World. They use magic to enrich themselves, gain power and ensure their comforts. Periodically, they engage in a magical struggle for control called the Turning, in which each family or House appoints a champion who duels other champions, often to the death. The House whose champion wins the tournament becomes the Head of the Unseen World until the next Turning, which is usually twenty years. When the book opens, the Turning has been announced seven years early, and two wild card champions are set to disrupt things in a big way.
Ian Merlin has disassociated himself from House Merlin, the current Head of the Unseen World. Ian is a powerful magician. He offers his services as champion to rival House Prospero, whose Head Miranda has disinherited her son and only child, Grey. If you think from this that family dynamics are complicated, Howard has done her job. The truly chaotic element, though, comes from somewhere else, when one outsider, Laurent Beauchamps, who is making a bid to found his own House, hires another, Sydney, an unknown with powerful magic, to be his champion.
When Sydney is introduced, she is described like an anime hero. Her training and formidable power come from Shadow, which is how we learn the dirty secret of magic in this world, and what the Houses of the Unseen World have done with it. To wield magic takes a toll from the wielder: headaches, nausea, extreme pain and weakness — the more pain and weakness the more power you use. Magic is bending reality to your will, and there’s a cost. Decades ago, they learned that a human sacrifice met the requirement for that cost. At first the duels to the death in the Turning satisfied the sacrifice, but later the Houses began giving newborn magical children to the House of Shadow. Those sacrifices were systematically tortured and ultimately killed, and the energy created from those atrocities went into a “pool” of magic that all the Houses can draw from. Sydney was meant as a sacrifice, but her strength caught the attention of the Head of House Shadows, who trained her instead. The big mistake the Unseen World made was to ignore House Shadows, and assume its Head has no agenda of her own. (Spoiler alert: She does.)
If you think that this makes the Unseen World callous, cruel and selfish, I refer you to the book’s title.
There is nothing particularly new about draining or killing innocents in some way to gather more power, just as there is nothing earth-shaking about magic tournaments, but Howard does pretty well here. It helps that An Unkindness of Magicians moves quickly. Despite the dark and serious nature of the premise, this is not a morally or politically complicated book. We know who the villains are early on, and they behave villainously. There are no real surprises, although there are mysteries about people’s legacies. The writing is visually vivid, the story filled with trendy, sparkling interiors and tense, clever dialogue. I particularly liked the Grrl Power theme with lawyer Madison and her assistant Harper.
My only other experiences with Howard come from a couple of her short works, and I remember beautiful, strange prose and dark tales. There is a lot of darkness here, but not a lot of complexity behind the set-up. Laurent, as an “outsider” in more than one way (he’s a Black man who comments that he probably has the darkest skin in the Unseen World) is there to comment and direct us on what we should think about the insular, privileged Houses, which function more like crime families than anything else. Even when Laurent is confronted by a terrible revelation about his best friend, he does the right thing with very little conflicted loyalty or soul-searching. The idea that Ian may be forced, by the machinations of the Turning, to duel his own sister to the death plays for suspense through part of the book but then is quite easily resolved.
One place that got short shrift in the story were the magical duels themselves, which tended to last about three of four lines or a paragraph at most. Even the magicians who gathered to observe seem bored with them. And Sydney’s sacrifice at the end did not seem well developed. I may be expecting too much since the theme of the book is sacrifice and who makes that sacrifice, but it came up suddenly, and the degree of loss she felt wasn’t well developed. That could just be me, though.
With its pretty, twenty-something characters, its glamorous interiors and a fairly simple magical system, An Unkindness of Magicians seems ripe for adaptation by one of the lighter-weight TV networks like The CW or Freeform, and I won’t be surprised to see it on the smaller screens someday.
I read the book over a holiday, when I wanted something easy and refreshing. An Unkindness of Magicians checked those boxes for me.