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Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Book Review - An Unkindness of Magicians

TLDR: ★★★★ Lovely writing with some really cool ideas, imaginative world-building, and a unique system of magic. While some aspects were a bit too vague, I still loved this dark urban fantasy about a sleek, magical world in NYC and the sad, tragic secret fueling it all.

An Unkindness of Magicians tells of a secret New York, one where magical power lies at the heart of the city's upper echelon. Like a certain wizarding world, there are magical houses, as alive and changing as the magicians who inhabit them. These are no boarding school dorms however, but old family homes for those awash in magic and dripping in generational wealth. The kind of homes you might find in the pages of Architectural Digest — if there was a super secret version available only to the magical elite.

The magic of this world comes at a cost, though: a pain tithe must be paid, extracted from the magician one way or another. Luckily for those in this hidden New York, someone long ago figured out how to pay that tithe with no painful impact on the actual magician. All of which helps a great deal when it comes to their most important event: the Turning, a magical battle royale where each of the houses must duke it out in challenges that escalate from whimsical to deadly, held every few decades to determine which of the families will govern and rule their magical world.

But just as the latest Turning begins, several things happen: women with little magic are being killed, magic itself has gone on the fritz — even vanishing for some — and the mysterious Sydney shows up seemingly out of nowhere, ready to battle with a rare power she expertly demonstrates in an awesome opening scene that sucked me right in:

The young woman cut through the crowded New York sidewalk like a knife. Tall in her red-soled stilettos, black clothing that clung to her like smoke, red-tipped black hair sharp and angular around her face. She looked like the kind of woman people would stop for, stare at, notice.
 

An Unkindness of Magicians

Kat Howard

Urban Fantasy

RELEASE DATE: September 26, 2017
HARDCOVER: 368 pages
PUBLISHER: Saga Press

There is a dark secret that is hiding at the heart of New York City and diminishing the city’s magicians’ power in this fantasy thriller by acclaimed author Kat Howard.

In New York City, magic controls everything. But the power of magic is fading. No one knows what is happening, except for Sydney—a new, rare magician with incredible power that has been unmatched in decades, and she may be the only person who is able to stop the darkness that is weakening the magic. But Sydney doesn’t want to help the system, she wants to destroy it.

Sydney comes from the House of Shadows, which controls the magic with the help of sacrifices from magicians.

 
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What I loved...

First, can we take a moment to bask in some cover love? It was my favorite book cover from all of last year (I don't know why it took me so long to actually read it). I mean, just look at it — so much stark white prettiness, it looks more like a coffee table book than a novel. Which, as it turns out, is sort of perfect for Kat Howard's stylishly bleak urban fantasy world.

I adored the writing in this, lyrical yet sparse enough to perfectly illustrate both the artistry and beauty of the magical feats, and the ugliness of the pain and suffering that held it all up underneath. This wound up being a tale of power and privilege that slowly snuck up on me, a subtle exploration of the ways in which people turn a blind eye to the suffering of others to maintain their comfortable lifestyle that I wasn't expecting. 

Sydney was a great main character to go on that journey with, so kick ass and powerful, but too tortured to be an annoying Mary Sue. I appreciated that her power came from her dark past in the House of Shadows; her every act of magic was a transmutation of pain that made her vulnerable and fragile in ways I thought was an interesting counterpoint to her steely resolve to tear the whole system down.

And I was rooting for Sydney to succeed, even though I loved the Unseen world! It touched on so many of my favorite things: a hidden world alongside our own full of magic and darkness, fanciful magical houses that shift on a whim, Machiavellian power plays and vengeful justice... it even spoke to my love of style and high fashion.

I could envision it so clearly, these well-heeled magicians in their Louboutins, looking down on the magic-less from luxury penthouses with glittering views, or slicing through the noise of the city in quiet town cars on the way to Central Park's Bethesda Fountain (almost a character here in itself). This would make a fantastic TV show, something on Netflix or HBO. Like, I need this to be a thing. Pretty please, universe?
 

What I didn't love...

Some aspects were too underdeveloped. I wanted to love the other characters (especially Laurent), but they just weren't fleshed out enough for me to care about them like that. I also wanted a bit more explanation surrounding how Shadows worked and why/how some were losing their magic. Both were compelling ideas (very much so), but the execution was a little too vague and the ending ultimately seemed almost too... easy?

Mostly, though, I was a bit flummoxed that what could've been an intriguing mystery was revealed pretty much immediately, robbing the rest of the story of some much needed tension. There were enough characters to keep the whodunit aspect of that subplot going, which would've added some interest to the more lackluster characters and enough suspense to make this the "fantasy thriller" promised in the blurb. As is, this book was not a thriller.

But these are just quibbles as overall I did really love this world and Sydney's story in it. And seriously, Netflix needs to get in touch with Kat Howard's people and make an awesome TV show happen!