Typically, you wouldn’t classify a book that features a string of mysterious murders as “whimsical.” But there’s little typical about C.M. Waggoner’s unassuming debut, Unnatural Magic.
The book is modest in the most pleasurable ways—bright but not boastful, ambitious without being arrogant. You could say the same of its two main characters, whose twin narratives propel them through opposite ends of the world Waggoner has created, only intersecting as the plot’s central mystery comes to a head.
On paper, there’s nothing all that unique about Onna, a headstrong Hermione type hellbent on breaking through the glass spellwork ceiling, or about Tsira, the misfit troll who’s never felt like the daughter her clan-leader mother wanted. Each character fits within an established type, but here, in Unnatural Magic’s enchanting, fully realized world, they feel disarmingly fresh.
The novel starts with Onna, and so should we. At her small village school, she is a star pupil, a mathematical genius who can write advanced parameters for spellwork faster than any of her male classmates. But hers is not an elite magic family—and, worse, she’s not a boy. So when she turns up at the entrance exam to the prestigious magic academy she’s dreamed of, she’s dismissed out of hand—even as she performs a mind-blowing display of illusion.
Her disappointment is short-lived. Waggoner has not drawn Onna as a shrinking violet, unsure about her own capabilities. Instead, Onna knows she’s better than the well-bred boys who get all the breaks, so she sets sail for exotic Hexos, were societal rules and the class structure are looser, and where she just might get the opportunities she deserves.
Meanwhile, there is Tsira, who we meet while minding her own business—which is mostly what she cares about, having left her troll clan on a journey to find herself. When she stumbles upon Jeckran, a half-dead human soldier, that journey becomes delightfully more complicated. Nursing Jeckran back to health forges a bond neither of them initially understands, but which comes into focus as they set out from their secluded cave as partners (of one variety or another). Theirs is a relationship of matter-of-fact yearning, both pure and striking.
For the bulk of Unnatural Magic, these two threads—Onna’s and Tsira and Jeckran’s—remain separate. The characters’ unique struggles share a theme: desire for acceptance and the road-blocked path to it. But on their respective wanderings, they begin to chew through the same mystery from different ends: in a far-flung rural village, trolls have rampaged and slaughtered the human residents. Meanwhile, a series of murdered trolls dot the streets of Hexos. What’s behind the violence and how to stop it are questions Onna, as well as Tsira and Jeckran, are trying to answer.
Those separate investigations build slowly, which would be more tedious if the main characters (and the eccentric bunch of side wizards, humans, and trolls) weren’t so interesting or if the world they inhabit had less room to roam. Instead, the plot simmers along while Waggoner showcases the breadth of imagination in this pleasantly sharp fantasy world. Sketched for us is a caste structure that has trolls on top, followed by an elite class of humans who can claim some amount of troll blood. Troll wizarding academies are the finest in the land, closed off to lesser humans—though, as we see with Onna’s trials, human schools can be just as snobbish.
Even without the novel’s central murders, tensions are rising between species and between classes. Long-standing societal inequalities are pouring into street protests, even while the balls and social niceties go on for the upper classes.
Navigating this scene through the eyes of Onna, Tsira, and Jeckran, we’re able to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of this environment. Each central character experiences some degree of homesickness and of a longing for simpler times, and Waggoner’s delicate prose draws out those feelings so believably that you share that yearning. By the time the bodies begin to pile up, you’re as invested as anyone in trying to save this world from itself.
What’s more magical than that?