A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly
Published by Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: February 2nd 2016
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Magic is powerful, dangerous and addictive - and after passage of the 18th Amendment, it is finally illegal.
It's 1926 in Washington, DC, and while Anti-Sorcery activists have achieved the Prohibition of sorcery, the city's magic underworld is booming. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters' crime sprees. Smugglers funnel magic contraband in from overseas. Gangs have established secret performance venues where patrons can lose themselves in magic, and take a mind-bending, intoxicating elixir known as the sorcerer's shine.
Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from Norfolk County, Virginia accepts an offer to work for DC's most notorious crime syndicate, the Shaw Gang, when her family's home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, a first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws.
Through different paths, Joan and Alex tread deep into the violent, dangerous world of criminal magic - and when their paths cross at the Shaws' performance venue, despite their orders, and despite themselves, Joan and Alex become enchanted with one another. But when gang alliances begin to shift, the two sorcerers are forced to question their ultimate allegiances and motivations. And soon, Joan and Alex find themselves pitted against each other in a treacherous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.
I had so much fun with this book. The premise was something you just can’t go wrong with (Prohibition era outlawing addictive magic instead of alcohol? YES PLEASE) and then on top of that we got some extremely engaging characters, solid worldbuilding, and a plot that just won’t stop.
There is nothing about this book that I wouldn’t recommend, though I will throw out one caveat: this isn’t a YA book. I have no idea why it was ever billed as a YA book. This is I thought New Adult was going to be, before contemporary took over the genre and publishers somehow forgot that college kids like fantasy adventures, too. Not only are the primary characters in that 18-22 age group, but some of the major themes are about striking out in the world and making your mark in your first job and making compromises between morals and surviving and finding out that all bosses are soul-sucking devils. (Plus there’s all that smoking and drinking and drug taking that’s going on.)
Back to the fangirling glee. Like I said, every part of this book appealed to me. It follows two primary characters, Joan and Alex, as they navigate the dark, illegal world of gangs and magical speakeasies. Both of these characters have shaky pasts and dark sides, and though they get mixed up with gangs for mostly good reasons, they wind up doing some fairly heinous things. I loved watching them struggle to reconcile the terrible things they do with their good intentions, watching them rationalize and compromise and build an increasingly-unsteady house of cards until the whole thing just implodes. A+ flawed character arcs for both of them, and it was glorious.
There’s really not much I can say about the worldbuilding and plot that isn’t just “it’s X, and isn’t X so cool?” which is why 5-star reviews are so hard for me. I want you to discover it yourself! Everything about the world hangs together so well, it’s gritty and beautiful at the same time. But yes, gangs and guns and magic speakeasies and stage magic and undercover cops and plots and machinations and murder and sex and what more could you want? If any of those things appeal to you, you need this book!
Rating: 5 out of 5