REVIEW: Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews
Dear Ms. Andrews,
When I read your first novel, Magic Bites, I was struck by your fresh worldbuilding. Sometimes I feel like many urban fantasy novels feature similar worldbuilding details. Execution makes all the difference, of course, but because of those similarities, I really appreciate unique worldbuilding when a book presents it to me. That said, I thought some of its plotting and characterization suffered from flaws you’d expect of a first novel. It was a good book, but I wouldn’t grade it as high as Jane did.
I don’t have those complaints here. The rough patches that bothered me in Magic Bites were not in attendance. And if they were, I didn’t notice them. I’m pleased this was the case because nothing is more disappointing than a poor follow-up to a promising debut.
For those readers new to the series, the Kate Daniels books take place in a futuristic Atlanta suffering from an advanced state of urban decay. In this world, magic batters the earth in waves, eating technology. When tech is up, spells fail and magical constructs lose their power. When magic is up, cars cease functioning and planes fall from the sky. But every seven years the waves increase in intensity until they culminate in a magical tsunami called a flare. During flares, magic is so powerful that even gods can walk the earth.
Against the backdrop of a building flare, Kate Daniels – now the liaison between the Mercenary Guild and the Order of Merciful Aid, has a problem. Two problems, actually. First, she’s been asked by the Pack to retrieve some stolen survey maps. Second of all, she’s been entrusted with a child named Julie whose mother, as well as the entire coven of witches the mother belongs to, is missing. When the maps continue to be stolen, even after being recovered, and demonic creatures come after Julie, it soon becomes apparent there’s a connection. And what that connection points to may prove disastrous for all of Atlanta, if not the entire world.
Kate remains the strong loner we first met in Magic Bites. She still has that smart mouth but I felt like she’d gained self-awareness of why she talked the way she did when choosing otherwise would have been the better course of action. While I do wish she’d learn to control that mouth a bit more, at least I no longer felt like she was being deliberately dense about it.
In addition, Kate’s pragmatism remains one of my favorite things about her. In the following passage, Kate is about to race the immortal thief Bran for the Pack’s maps:
I tossed Slayer on the bed, never taking my eyes off him, and put the maps on the sheets. “Back away, three steps.”
We stepped back in unison, he to the middle of the room, and I to the wall by the chair.
“On three. One,” he said, bending forward like a runner. “Two.”
He lunged for the maps. I grabbed the chair and hit him with it. He went down. I hit him again to make sure he stayed that way, stepped over him, and picked up the maps. “I win.”
How great is that? Bran cheats by starting early but Kate evens the odds handily.
As I mentioned earlier, I love the worldbuilding of the Kate Daniels books. It’s not just the premise of alternating magic and tech waves. It’s the little details too: the covens’ Oracle holds audience deep in the belly of a giant tortoise, the demonic assassins sent after Kate and Julie are mermaids with poisonous Medusa hair. I admit Celtic mythology is not my strong suit so I can’t comment on whether it was 100% accurate with the source material, but what was there seemed to work well. I am a fantasy reader first and foremost, so solid worldbuilding is really important to me, and this book does not disappoint.
But it’s not just the details that I love. It’s also how the setting is presented:
The shortest route to the garage lay along Interstate 85 through the heart of the city. In happier times, the view from the highway must have been breathtaking. Now both Downtown and Midtown lay in ruins, battered to near rubble by the magic waves. Twisted steel skeletons of the once mighty skyscrapers jutted like bleached fossil bones from the debris. Here and there a long half-eaten survivor struggled to remain upright, all but its last few stories destroyed. Shattered glass from hundreds of windows glittered among chunks of concrete.
The comparison of the city to dead and dying animals provides a striking image. It drives home the point that this is a world in decay, where magic is returning and destroying the modern technology impeding it.
While I liked the sparse, tight plotting, I do feel the last third of the book might have suffered from a little too many action scenes right before the climactic battle. I know many people like action scenes and I normally include myself among their number, but I also think too many of them too close together ends up having the opposite effect. Instead of speeding up the pace, I find it slows thing down for me. Or it’s possible I was simply exhausted by the thought of all that fighting and wanted to get on with the final confrontation.
I’ve been focusing mostly on the aspects that appeal to me as a fantasy reader, but it’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Kate and Curran dynamic. I like how their relationship is unfolding slowly, developing over the course of what I hope will be several books. It makes things more believable considering the two people involved: the Beast Lord of the Pack and the lifelong loner with a dangerous heritage. I may be wrong but I believe there’s enough interaction between them here to keep crossover readers satisfied.
As a word of caution, some people may find this book gory. It didn’t bother me because I think the setting supports it but I know it’s a concern to some readers so I thought it fair to mention. And finally, I enjoyed how we learned a bit more about Kate’s past and heritage. I feel like I have enough details now to start constructing her backstory whereas in the first book, I felt things were being coyly kept secret just to be annoying. All in all, sign me up for the next book. B+
Want to win a free copy of Magic Burns? Ace is graciously giving away a book to five commenters. Drop a line and let us know if you want one. Contest ends Thursday midnight. These books should arrive before the April1 release date. You know you want one.