Book review · novel

Book review: A criminal magic

A Criminal Magic, by Lee Kelly


Description (from Simon & Schuster )

In Lee Kelly’s newest fantasy novel, two young sorcerers experiment with magic and mobsters in 1920s Prohibition when a new elixir is created that turns their lives upside down.

Washington, DC, 1926. Sorcery opponents have succeeded in passing the 18th Amendment, but the Prohibition of magic has only invigorated the city’s underworld. Smuggling rings carry magic contraband in from the coast. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters’ crime sprees. Gangs have even established “magic havens,” secret venues where the public can lose themselves in immersive magic and consume a mind-bending, highly addictive elixir known as “the sorcerer’s shine.”

Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from the backwoods of Norfolk County, accepts an offer to work for DC’s most notorious crime syndicate, The Shaw Gang, when her family’s home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws. When Joan meets Alex at the Shaws’ magic haven, she discovers a confidante in her fellow partner and he begins to fall under her spell. But when a new breed of the addictive sorcerer’s shine is created within the walls of the magic haven, Joan and Alex are forced to question their allegiances as they become pitted against one another in a dangerous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.

The synopsis of this novel really intrigued me. I read it even if I didn’t like the cover that much. And I have to admit I love to read books that have great covers (I know I know…). But it is one of those you learn to love while you read and that, by the end of the story, you understand and now want to have in your shelf (I read it as an ebook first, but I’m thinking about buying a physical copy as well).

I don’t think it will be one of my favourite book of 2016 but it is one I’ll totally want to read again and that I wish more people would read and appreciate. It truly is original and worth the read.

I saw the blurb “THE NIGHT CIRCUS meets THE PEAKY BLINDERS in Lee Kelly’s new crossover fantasy novel.” on goodreads after finishing it and I have to say it’s not really the case. I saw someone being disappointed by the book because of it and I don’t want anyone to have the same feeling, expecting something and getting another one very different. It does takes place in the 20s and involves gangsters, undercover cops and prohibition but the Night Circus comparison? I don’t really see it. I loved The Night Circus and I really liked A Criminal Magic but they don’t really compare. There’s showmanship, yes, but the atmosphere and the pace is different.

In A Criminal Magic, Anti-Sorcery activists have achieved the Prohibition of sorcery. Magic is a substance that can be brewed and consumed by people (both sorcerers and non-sorcerers) and has an addictive power, much like alcohol and drugs. Obviously an underworld bloomed and smugglers, gangs and patrons took control. Magic shows are being organised, at small and larger scales, ending in magic consumption and weird trip. The story begins when we learn through Joan point of view that some sorcerers are being recruited by a mysterious man for an enigmatic purpose.

“I whisper beside her, “Incredible.” Because despite how dangerous magic can be—how it’s been used to hide murders, cover up robberies, send people spiraling into the throes of addiction—there’s just no denying that it is.”

The story is told through the dual point of view of Joan Kendrick and Alex Danfrey, the two of them tormented by their past and what happened in their respective families. She wants to protect hers while he looks for revenge and redemption. Both are defined by their past and what they want for their future. They are highly skilled sorcerers that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

I loved the idea of magical teamwork, it was innovative and well written, I felt like I was there and was amazed by what the sorcerers created.

“Pure magic might only last a day, but its hold on you lasts far longer.”

I mostly loved the first half of the book and the very end. As I expected more, the second half was not up not my expectations but it still was a great story with a good plot and two engaging main characters. There was a certain number of secondary characters who lacked characterization, I would have loved the other sorcerers alongside Joan to have more importance or maybe more soul. I loved Joan a lot but I would have loved it if the whole cast was more present. Obviously this was my feeling after reading it and I still liked it despite those observations. I do not regret at all reading A Criminal Magic and I’ll certainly read more books by Lee Kelly when the synopsis interests me like this one did!

(originally posted: 25th February 2016)

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