Tag Archives: Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

I liked Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, quite a bit and even more in hindsight, and I’ve enjoyed the several pieces of short fiction I’ve read from her since, but An Unkindness of Magicians is still a surprising book. Thematically, it covers a lot of the same ground as Howard’s other work, and like her previous novel this one deals heavily with family drama and magic. However, at its core, Unkindness is nicely summed up by the well-chosen epigraph, a memorable line from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, with which it opens:

“Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.”

An Unkindness of Magicians opens with a singularly powerful image that introduces our heroine, Sydney, and gives us our first glimpse of the magic that fuels so much of the action in the book. Unkindness has been compared in some reviews to The Magicians, and though I haven’t read that book, it certainly shares some commonalities with the television adaptation. Like the magic in The Magicians, magic in Unkindness is often less about doing useful things and more about magicians putting on a great show for each other. Sure, characters use magic for some mundane tasks, but the big stuff is mostly theatrics until late in the book. The opening scene of Sidney’s impressive spellcasting as she auditions for a prestigious job is vividly described and immediately shows the reader what kind of book this is: smart, confident and beautifully written.

Howard’s first novel occasionally felt weighed down by its sometimes-heavy themes, but this one is a bit more structurally sound. It’s a good thing, too, as Unkindness is a good deal darker than Roses and Rot. One thing that helps this book immensely in this regard is the large ensemble cast. Sydney is definitely the fulcrum around which the main plot and all the other characters pivot, but with other characters capable of doing some heavy lifting, she’s never forced to carry the full weight of story or themes on her shoulders. The best part, though, is that, while characters like Laurent and Ian hold up their parts of the book quite well, Sydney is also surrounded by female characters who have stories and goals of their own while supporting Sydney and being supported by her in turn. Harper, in particular, is such a wonderful secondary protagonist that I can’t help but hope to someday read more about her.

The Unseen World is sexist and racist and classist, there are no fewer than three huge injustices (and quite a few smaller ones) being addressed in this book, and Howard does a great job of telling her story from multiple points of view that allow the reader a broad understanding of the world she’s crafting. That said, the villains in Unkindness only manage to be about two-and-a-half-dimensional, with motivations that aren’t always completely explicable. Miles Merlin’s fear of aging and Grey Prospero’s pathological desire to excel as a magician at any cost make sense, but there’s a certain level of “evil gonna evil” throughout the book. This makes more sense for Miles, who simply dehumanizes the people he hurts so much that he seems to genuinely not think he’s doing anything wrong; like all of the worst {X]-ists, Miles Merlin is nothing if not certain of his own moral rectitude.

This is less true of Grey, whose crimes are much more personal. Miles can tell himself that he does what he does for the good of all the Unseen World, but Grey is explicitly self-focused, intent on amassing personal power through his exploitation of others. Grey’s storyline (and Harper’s corresponding quest for justice) could be interpreted as metaphorical for rape and the difficulties rape victims face in trying to get justice; Grey’s violence is indeed gendered, and the way his privilege protects him is indeed reminiscent to many of the ways in which rapists are treated, but his degree of violence and the magical benefits he gains from it make it a flawed analogy at best. Howard makes her point on the issue, but without the finesse or the unambiguous success with which she accomplishes other goals in the book.

Any other criticisms of the book are simply quibbles. The New York setting has been praised by some as authentic and recognizable, but I found it somewhat generic-feeling. The naming conventions—Prospero, Merlin, Morgan—were a little on the nose, and it undercut some of the seriousness of the novel. Overall, though, it’s a highly readable book full of evocative prose, with a thoroughly lovely ambience, a snappy pace, several cleverly-plotted mysteries, and a conclusion suffused with the great catharsis of seeing justice done.

This review is of a review copy of the title received from the publisher.

Book Review – Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies, Edited by John Joseph Adams

The new John Joseph Adams-edited anthology, Cosmic Powers, is the first great anthology of the year, jam-packed with smart, entertaining sci-fi adventure stories that bring a nicely modern sensibility to old ideas and tropes. There are several recurring themes throughout the anthology. Religion figures largely in many of these stories, and several of the stories deal with gods or with beings who have amassed nearly godlike power with the aid of time and technology. Artificial intelligences of various kinds make several appearances, as do post-humans of multiple kinds. Examinations of families both biological and found are significant as well, and several stories look at the responsibility of people to each other, personally, and to humanity as a whole; it’s “the personal is political” writ across space and time. It’s a remarkably cohesive collection that nonetheless contains a wonderful variety of stories by a diverse group of authors to offer a well-rounded perspective on the idea of stories that take place on a cosmic scale.

The collection kicks off on a strong note with Charlie Jane Anders’ very clever, very funny adventure story, “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” and Tobias S. Buckell’s “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance,” which is at least as clever as its predecessor, telling the story of a maintenance robot’s creative circumvention of its own programming. It’s seldom that any anthology starts off with three knock-out stories in a row, but these two are followed up with Becky Chambers’ “The Deckhand, the Nova Blade, and the Thrice-Sung Texts,” a delightful epistolary exploration of the Hero’s Journey from the perspective of an unlikely Chosen One.

The next three stories aren’t as good. Vylar Kaftan’s “The Sighted Watchmaker” is fine, and I’m sure it will be appealing to those who enjoy this kind of thing, but it wasn’t for me. It lost me with the Richard Dawkins epigraph and never quite managed to recapture my interests. I had already read “Infinite Love Engine” by Joseph Allen Hill in a recent issue of Lightspeed, but rereading it didn’t help me “get” it any better than I did the first time. I want to love the sheer weirdness of it, but it verges on a degree of psychedelia that makes it difficult to nail down exactly what the story is about. Still, I expect this is a story that I’ll return to again; I think maybe I just need to read it the right way and it will all make sense. “Unfamiliar Gods” by Adam-Troy Castro, with Judi B. Castro, is a mostly straightforward deal with the devil story, played for laughs and with an absurdist “twist,” but it’s not particularly funny or thoughtful.

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World” covers some of the same thematic ground as “The Sighted Watchmaker,” but more effectively and with an interesting story structure that works well to break up Yoachim’s big ideas into easily digestible portions. “Golden Ring” by Karl Schroeder and “The Universe, Sung in Stars” by Kat Howard similarly work with ideas relating the nature of god and time, but neither of these approach the excellence of “Seven Wonders.” The Kat Howard story is beautifully written, but all the lovely, poetic prose in the world isn’t enough to make up for a somewhat trite premise.

From Alan Dean Foster comes the workmanlike but ultimately anti-climactic “Our Specialty is Xenogeology,” in which a Star Trek-ish team of space explorers almost make first contact but then think better of it. I expected to love A. Merc Rustad’s “Tomorrow When We See the Sun,” having liked all the previous work of theirs that I’ve read, but I didn’t. (Still can’t wait til I get my copy of their first short fiction collection, though. So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories came out May 2 from Lethe Press.) I barely remember Jack Campbell’s “Wakening Ouroboros” and Dan Abnett’s “The Frost Giant’s Data,” and together with the sadly unremarkable Kameron Hurley tale, “Warped Passages”—which is only notable due to its seeming connection to Hurley’s excellent space opera, The Stars Are Legion—they made for a finish to Cosmic Powers that wasn’t nearly as strong as its start.

Fortunately, there’s still a few more excellent stories tucked in the middle. Seanan McGuire’s “Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair!” is a cool, fun adventure with some high stakes. It’s perhaps a little too tidy, but I’d definitely be down to read the continuing adventures of these characters as a novel. Linda Nagata’s “Diamond and the World Breaker” has a similar tone and similarly high stakes, and I loved the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship between Diamond and Violetta. As the current parent of fourteen-year-old girl, I found the conflict relatable, and Nagata does a good job of capturing some of the frustration and joy of watching one’s child grow up. Sandwiched between these two stories is “The Dragon the Flew Out of the Sun” by Aliette de Bodard, a thoughtful musing on the long-term ways that war damages communities and families. It’s the story in the book that is least like any of the other stories collected here, but it resonates in a compelling way with the stories that immediately precede and follow it.

Finally, there’s a new Yoon Ha Lee story, “The Chameleon’s Gloves,” set in his Hexarchate universe but offering a very different perspective than what has been seen of that world so far. Before now, the Hexarchate stories have been very concerned with specifically military stories, with a lot of focus on the complex calendrical mathematics that fuel the Hexarchate’s technology, but “The Chameleon’s Gloves” is a bit smaller, more personal story centered around a character who is something of an outsider to all of that. It’s not my favorite thing Lee has ever written, and if you really want to get a good idea of his oeuvre you ought to pick up his superb 2013 collection, Conservation of Shadows, but it’s a great place to start, especially if you’ve only read Ninefox Gambit and not any of Lee’s short fiction.