Details: Kelly, Lee. (2016) A Criminal Magic. New York: Saga Press
Keywords: Sorcery, Magic, 1920’s, Mob. Fantasy
I have to admit this book left me feeling a little bit stumped. The concept is amazing: prohibition era, but instead of alcohol being illegal, magic is what has been forbidden. I mean, come on. That is genius right there. And it was a really fun read for sure, but after finishing I felt like it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been.
The story follows two characters: Joan, a young woman with a dark past who finally embraces her magical powers in order to help her poor family; and Alex, whose father was arrested for a magic racket in which Alex was the key sorcerer. He has since joined the Federal Prohibition Unit, the force dedicated to taking down magic. Both end up working for the mob (Alex as an undercover agent), and the stakes get increasingly high as Joan’s dark past comes back to haunt her.
Again, I loved the concept of this book. And I think that Lee Kelly did a great job of building her own unique style of magic. It was both something that could be beautiful and really scary, which lead to some fascinating great scenes. The use of magic as a drug, the so-called “shine,” was also a brilliant plot point. The draw to using magic and the danger that it posed was a perfect juxtaposition, mirrored especially in Joan’s character. She was both naive and worldly and this comes through in the choices she makes surrounding her magic.
I can understand that Joan might be a frustrating character for some people. She makes some pretty poor choices and continues to justify them to herself throughout the novel. But I found that her choices, though bad, made sense in the context of how broken she was in some ways, so I thought it lent credence to the character that she wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. Besides, there wouldn’t be much of a story without those decisions.
Alex was also an interesting study in juxtapositions. In some cases he could be quite self-destructive, but his drive to do well by his family and escape his past put him in positions where he had to be more careful. When Joan and Alex finally meet, it makes sense that they would be drawn to each other based not only on their pasts, but also on this inherent tension in what they want and need versus the actual reality of their lives at the moment.
So this book has a lot going for it, and the story and characters were definitely intriguing. I’m not sure what it is that is missing that made me want more from the story. Another review I read mentioned that they thought Kelly did not use the setting of the 1920’s enough, which I can see. To add to that, I also think it could have been a little grittier, what with the mob playing a pretty big role in the story. Sometimes it just felt too clean.
But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The danger felt real and I was invested in the characters and their relationships. Based on the writing, I am curious to read Kelly’s other novel City of Savages.
Excitement Level: Four “Shine” induced stars
Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.