A whole generation of readers grew up with Harry Potter, aging into a world of dangerous magic and hard choices alongside the Boy Who Lived. In An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard presents the story of grownup witches and wizards I’ve been searching for since Harry Potter ended, set in a world of high-stakes magic, populated by strong characters, and infused with the kind of enchantment that leaves me aching to read just a few more pages.
It is the time of the Turning, when the magicians of New York City gather for a tournament—a series of magical duels (eventually, to the death) that will determine which ancient House will rule the Unseen world for a generation. But this Turning is different—it has come too soon. It has only been 13 years since House Merlin took control, much less time than anyone expected. Still, all Houses must participate, and each must choose a champion.
The Turning is also the time for young magicians, or those with a score to settle, to make their marks and establish their own houses. That’s precisely what Laurent, a unhoused magician born into the mundane world who came late to his power, and Grey, the disinherited heir to one of the most powerful houses, have in mind. Laurent recruits (via the internet, which bends to serve magic) a young woman named Sydney to serve as his champion; though previously unknown to the Unseen world, she quickly proves to be one of the most powerful magicians any of them have ever encountered—yet just as she appears, magic stops working the way it should. Spells go awry, or don’t work at all. Magic seems to be ebbing away, and some believe the newcomer is to blame.
As Fortune’s Wheel turns, a non-magical human named Harper Douglas has another problem, more mundane, but far more terrible than a power squabble among elites: her best friend has been murdered, her knucklebones stolen. Harper is convinced the killer was a magician, even though she’s not supposed to know anything about magic. The only way for her to find closure is to solve the murder herself, which will require breaking her way into the Unseen world. Luckily, she’s a lawyer, and in New York City, even magicians need lawyers.
Behind the scenes, House Merlin and House Prospero (led by the delightfully sharp Miranda Prospero, a sort of Professor McGonagall type, but with all the soft edges sanded away) play the game of manipulation. They can’t fix the Turning, but they can use each other’s children as champions. Young Ian Merlin offers to represent House Prospero, striking out against his father, and he has reasons for it that go far beyond youthful rebellion. Miranda can accept and give her rival house more reason to hate her, but at what cost?
As in her debut novel, Roses and Rot, Howard’s characters are masterfully developed, shaded by morality that goes far beyond mere heroism or villainy. Their flaws are just as important as their motives—and each has something to hide. Something they need. Something they desire. In many ways, the book belongs to Sydney, whose mysterious past is rooted in pain and a betrayal that has given her more than enough reason to hate the magical world—or at the very least, those in charge of it. Because in this world, using magic carries a price, and the burden of paying it doesn’t always fall where it should.
This is the New York City we know—a city of impossible dreams, of terrible suffering living next to unbelievable wealth—made all the more glittering and hard-edged by a sheen of magic. Despite the fantasy elements, this is New York, from the way the well-heeled magicians treat those beneath their station, to the way the buildings the characters live in speak volumes about their status. I’d believe Sydney, Ian, House Merlin and House Prospero are all waiting for me on East 73rd. Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain becomes a central location, as do many other familiar streets, and I suspect many a New Yorker will find it charming to see their home so deftly alight with magic.
Howard’s prose shines bright, particularly when describing the duels that drive the narrative forward. They are tense and riveting, and each is unique—in one, dozens of waiters are made to dance like marionettes; in another, plants burst from the walls of an elegant ballroom. And these are battles with stakes—after a certain point, all duels in the Turning become mortal, and Howard doesn’t flinch from the mayhem. Bones break and blood flows, and we’re not sure who will live and who will die, and who will wind up on top, to rule the magical world.
What will the New Yorkers of the Unseen world give up or steal to rise to the top of the wheel? What are your limits, when you can access limitless power?
If you seek strong women wielding magic, dangerous odds with high costs, and deep worldbuilding with sharp edges, An Unkindness of Magicians will give you what you’re looking for: magic in a compromised world. A grownup world.