Title: A Criminal Magic
Author: Lee Kelly
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Page Count: 432 pages
Age Rating: Young Adult & Up (blood, violence, death, and very vague sexual scenes)
How I got my hot little hands on it: Received a copy to review
Publisher’s page: A Criminal Magic
In Lee Kelly’s “electric” (Publishers Weekly) 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.
A CRIMINAL MAGIC casts a spell of magic, high stakes and intrigue against the backdrop of a very different Roaring Twenties.
A Criminal Magic is set in the Prohibition era, but with magic being outlawed instead of liquor, and instead of underground speakeasies where illegal alcohol is served, they have magic havens where sorcerers perform illegal magic shows and brew sorcerer’s shine, a highly addictive magic-infused drink that allows sorcerers and non-sorcerers alike to “see” magic.
The book is told in four parts with chapters alternating between the perspectives of Joan Kendrick and Alex Danfrey as they both get mixed up in the dangerous 1920’s world of gangsters, violence, and shine – and kind of fall in love along the way. The two meet somewhere in the middle of their individual arcs, but, sadly, it soon becomes apparent they don’t quite share the same moral compass. Or they do at one point, but that changes as their individual journeys take them on different paths.
Joan Kendrick is determined to claw her family out of poverty, even if it means tapping into the dangerous magic running through her veins and working for a notorious crime family. Her journey is a little morally grey and ambiguous. She’s willing to do anything to elevate her family’s fortunes, and as the story progresses she realizes how far she’s willing to go and the actions she’s able to rationalize as just means to an end. She’s not a bad person, not really, but she is at her core a survivor and the impossible situation she finds herself in brings that out in her – survival of herself and her family at all costs.
Alex Danfrey just wants to stay out of jail and fix his family’s good name after his father’s underworld dealings damaged it almost beyond repair, but he gets roped into helping the Feds by going undercover to take down the criminal world that so ruined his own. Alex starts out really only caring about himself – getting back the prestige his family name used to afford him and not going to jail – but as he gets deeper into the crime syndicate and sees how dangerous the illegal magical substances they push are, he begins to genuinely care about the cause he’s been grudgingly recruited for.
The writing in this is fantastic and it’s such a great build as the story unfolds and the main characters get pulled deeper into the criminal world around them and the possibility of untangling themselves from the sticky web they’re both stuck in gets more complex, as is the possibility of any kind of happy ending for the pair. The tension at the end, oh my goodness, I literally had to put the book down in the final chapters because I got so anxious – loved it!
I really enjoyed this book. The moral ambiguity and opposing character arcs of the main characters really make this a fascinating read. If you like books about magic, gangsters, the Roaring Twenties, or any combination thereof, I highly recommend A Criminal Magic.