James Swain is the author of several crime thrillers, featuring series characters like a casino detective and an ex-cop who searches for missing children. Dark Magic is his first attempt at a supernatural thriller. Dark Magic is set in New York City with a main character who is a stage magician and a psychic.
Dark Magic opens with a group of psychics conducting a séance. The leader, Peter Warlock, has a horrifying vision. He is standing in Times Square, surrounded by people who are dying by the score. The weapon that is killing them is invisible. Peter sees a single man, unaffected by the attack, standing in the center of the square, a glowing sigil tattooed on his neck. His psychic group figures out that this attack will happen in four days. Previously, the group has notified law enforcement of potential disasters anonymously, but in this case, there isn’t enough time. Someone will have to go public and reveal their supernatural abilities, and it will probably have to be Peter.
There is more to the situation than just the deadly attack. The man Peter saw is a mercenary working for the Order of Astrum, a powerful, evil group of magic practitioners. Soon, the mercenary is coming after Peter and his friends.
Dark Magic is a stripped-down thriller, concentrating primarily on the hunter-and-hunted dynamic between Peter and the mercenary, Wolfe. Yes, that’s right — it’s Peter and the Wolfe. Peter also has to contend with some shocking revelations about his psychic parents, both of whom were murdered when he was a small boy, and the source of his own exploding psychic abilities.
The descriptions of New York City, both interiors and exteriors, are good. Peter’s seven psychic friends are stereotypes — a sophisticated New York City witch who lives at the Dakota; a frowsy Tarot card reader; a dapper, gentlemanly stage magician named Max — but they’re fun stereotypes.
Swain uses a lot of stage magic and close-work in the book, and it’s entertaining. He reveals some tricks (very old ones, so he isn’t breaking anyone’s code).
It‘s in the area of psychic magic that the book breaks down. Swain takes a make-it-up-as-you-go approach to the supernatural elements, mixing up astral projection, talking with spirits, precognition, spells and mind-reading with supernormal physical abilities. Peter suddenly becomes a master fighter; the villains can possess and reanimate dead bodies. A flock of crows can hold aloft a two-hundred-pound man. None of these things has an internally consistent explanation. Swain throws in Greek crone-goddesses and Judeo-Christian demons with great gusto but not much background. I don’t need a role-playing-game-level set of magical rules, but I need enough internal logic to accept the magic when it shows up.
The evil old guys of Order of Astrum have powerful abilities, including the ability to see into the future at will. The evil trio’s plan to kill off psychics throughout the world so that the psychics can’t warn law enforcement of impending catastrophes doesn’t make sense either. Does law enforcement take e-mails from anonymous psychics seriously now? And if these three really have the precognitive abilities they seem to, they could get rich just by playing the stock market, making their convoluted scheme even less meaningful.
I read a lot of thrillers, and I find most of them inherently implausible. According to thrillers, half of the FBI’s special agents are female, beautiful, under thirty-five, and have degrees in code-breaking, ancient languages or art history; a man can escape from a windowless locked room with a toothpick and the Velcro strap from his running shoe; and his geeky sidekick can use his smart-phone to simultaneously shut off electricity to an entire quadrant of the city, reroute all the traffic, and pay for his double espresso from the villain’s secret bank account. I don’t read thrillers for plausibility, but I do need internal consistency, and that’s missing in Dark Magic, both in the magical parts and in some of the real world sections as well.
The ending of Dark Magic sets Peter up as a series character. While I enjoyed the seven psychics and the descriptions of New York, I probably won’t read any more of these.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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