Side by side with the mundane world sits the world of magic. Powerful families with a rigid caste system rule this unseen world. But the wheel of fortune has begun to turn. Anything can happen during a “turning” and a young, unknown magician, Sydney, is hoping to turn the magical world on its head during this one. She has come to right some very old wrongs and woe to anyone who gets in her way. Kat Howard has crafted a beautiful tale of right, wrong, power, and revenge in An Unkindness of Magicians.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Saga Press for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of An Unkindness of Magicians contains some spoilers!]
A world in flux
New York is full of magicians in An Unkindness of Magicians (because everything happens in New York). They move through the mundane (non-magical) world without even a ripple. But now some big waves are moving through their world. The magical world is governed by Houses that are headed by powerful magicians. These houses compete in the turning about every twenty years to decide the hierarchy of their society.
For the last one hundred years House Merlin has won the turning and ruled the magical community. But suddenly a new turning has begun. Everyone is feeling off-centered because it has only been thirteen years since the last turning.
Laurent is one of several young magicians looking to start his own house. In order to do this he must enter a champion into the turning and place high enough to earn the honor. He searches for a champion and finds Sydney. Sydney is a powerful magician that no one has ever heard of. Laurent is blown away by her magic and signs her to be his champion straight away, certain of victory. But maybe he should ask some more questions of the mysterious magician.
Laurent is not the only one looking to establish himself in the turning. His best friend Grey, once the heir to the powerful House Prospero, is looking to start a house of his own. And Ian Merlin shocks the unseen world when he signs up as the House Prospero champion instead of fighting for his birth house, House Merlin. Clearly, this turning is looking to shake things up more than ever. Will the magical community survive the changes this turning brings?
Plans upon plans, and secrets upon secrets in An Unkindness of Magicians
In the turning, everyone has a plan. The best strategy to win takes a lot of thought. I haven’t really explained how the turning works yet. Each house has a champion that competes in duels with other house champions. The winner then earns points for their house. In the end, the highest-ranking house is the ruler of the magical world until the next turning. Other houses gain or lose power according to the new ranking. New houses can even be formed, or old houses dissolved based on the rankings.
All the rounds have the potential to be dangerous, but the early rounds are more about showiness and who is the better magician. But later rounds require a mortality to win. Each house can only face another house once and houses issue challenges to duel. Meaning that the houses decide who meets when, not an arbitrary bracket.
This means that deciding who to face when is very important and takes a lot of forethought. The heads of houses and their champions have all kinds of strategies in play. Then there are the hidden plans that no one knows about or sees. The intrigues going on behind the main events are even more exciting than the battles, and those are highly entertaining! It seems like everyone has a secret and if Sydney is going to win and bring about the changes in the magical world she’s hoping for she’ll have to watch out for those hidden bombs and hope they don’t blow up on her.
The cost of hidden secrets
One nearly universal truth of magic today is that it always has a cost. In An Unkindness of Magicians Howard has the magic take a toll on the physical body in the form of pain and injury. About one hundred years ago magicians discovered that magic could be tortured out of people and stored. This stored magic could then be drawn on to fuel magic, at no cost to the magician.
House Merlin then crafted a spell that created the House Shadows. House Shadows is a place where the houses send a sacrifice every turning. The sacrifice is tortured to steal their magic until they die. The stolen magic is stored within the spell and any magician can use it without having to pay a personal price.
This horrible practice has been around long enough that the magicians just accept it as “the way things are” and don’t bother to really think about where their “cost-free” magic is coming from. But Sydney doesn’t do magic that way. She finds it despicable. Sydney pays her cost for every spell and wants to change things so that other magicians will too. Her ultimate goal is to destroy House Shadows, and no price is too high for that.
I found House Shadows and the magician’s way of transferring the cost of spells to be very similar to slavery. In both cases one group profits from another group’s suffering. The sacrifices are forgotten about and viewed as less than human. And everyone at the top is too comfortable to bother questioning the morality of what they do. Someone from outside the system, who can understand the suffering of those sent to House Shadow is needed to end this practice. Sydney is the revolution they need. Will she have the strength to finish the job?
Exciting fantasy with a deeper message
An Unkindness of Magicians is a different kind of fantasy. Instead of just being a fun romp, it had a lot to say about unjust societies, class, and prejudice. But it was still fun. Sydney is rather socially awkward due to her upbringing and it makes for some funny situations. But Sydney is aware of her shortcomings, just as she is aware of her strengths. She may be socially inept but she is extremely confident too. I just loved her and her complete focus on her goal. I strongly recommend checking out Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians before the next installment, A Sleight of Shadows comes out this April.
My Rating: 9/10
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard is available now! What are your thoughts on the novel from his breakdown? Interested in reading it yourself? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of the upcoming sequel, A Sleight of Shadows!