Recommended Reads Saturday: Hard Magic by Laura Anne Gilman
From the words of E:
I am recommending this book because Set in the Cosa Nostradamus world HARD MAGIC is book one of the Paranormal Scene Investigations series. It introduces a group of mostly 20-somethings currently who are all very determined, have their own particular skills involving the use of Current (magic), and are invited to a job interview. They form the investigators of P.U.P.I – Private Unaffiliated, Paranormal. Investigations which is the brain child of two people who have survived the politics of the Council and walked away. P.U.P.I faces an uphill battle because no one in power wants an outsider they can’t control to investigate what they have been doing. Between the world-building, the team coming together and meshing, their first investigation, and outside influences using whatever they could to discredit P.U.P.I. I found an adventure that I continue to go back and re-read as I wait for future books.
The following is an excerpt from Hard Magic posted with the approval of Laura Anne Gilman
“Good evening, my dear.” He was pouring wine, a deep red liquid that made my mouth water. I was more of a vodka martini girl, but my mentor had a fantabulous wine cellar, too.
He was looking good, and I told him so.
“Well, I had a hot date tonight, had to brush off the good suit.”
Joseph Cetala had just pushed over seventy, and looked it, but every year had been kind. His hair was still thick, if bone-white, and his patrician cheekbones were hidden under still-firm skin. I have no objections to my looks – they do the job and pale skin and a pointy-pixie chin suits me – but man did I used to wish I was his biological daughter, just for those cheekbones.
I took a glass from him, and sat down on the sofa. The shaggy white and brown throw rug got to its feet, and shuffled over to me. “Hey there, good boy. How’s my good boy?”
“He’s getting old, same as me.”
“Nah. You guys are never gonna get old. Are you boy?”
Rupert woofed, and shoved his wet nose into my hand. I wasn’t much for pets, but Rupe was less a pet than a member of the household. J said all Old English Sheepdogs were smart, but I personally thought Rupe got a double-helping of brains. I always got the feeling he wasn’t so optimistic about me.
J took his own glass over to the leather chair and sat down, crossing one leg against his knee and looking, I swear to God, like some kind of ad for something upscale and classy aimed at the Retirement Generation. Even in my nice dress and pearls, I still felt outclassed.
J used to tell me, when I was, oh, thirteen and felt particularly floundering-ish, that I would grow up into who I always was. It sounds nice, I guess, but I’m still not quite sure who that is. She uses a lot of hair dye and has an interestingly eclectic wardrobe, and might have a lead on a job, though. So that was all right.
“You are looking particularly glowy tonight, dearest. Either the job hunt has resulted in a hit, or you have met a new admirer.”
I think J gets a kick out of my social life, although he tsks periodically over my inability – lack of desire, really – to get settled into one steady relationship. So long as I’m happy, he’s happy. I mean, he didn’t blink the first time I showed up with a new girlfriend, and never asked when she went away and a new boyfriend showed up.
I’m not particularly into labels. I just like people, is all. Doesn’t matter what body parts they’ve got, so long as there’s a brain and a sense of humor and a healthy idea of companionship.
“Both, maybe,” I told him. “But it’s the job thing that’s interesting. I was in the shower when the call came in…”
J listened the way he always did, with his entire body leaning forward, his hands cupped around his glass, his gaze not unblinking but steady on my face. When I finished, he leaned back, took a sip from his glass, and didn’t say anything.
“You intend to follow through on these instructions?”
“I’d planned to, yeah. You think it’s a bad idea? Are you getting a vibe?” I had what J called the kenning, not quite precog but a sort of magical sense about things, but he’d been honing his current for a lifetime before I came along, and that meant he picked up more than I did on a regular basis.
“Nothing so strong as a premonition, no. I will admit, however, to a sense that something is slightly… what is that horrible word you used to use? Hinky. Something feels hinky about it.”
That made me laugh. “Well, yes. That probably goes without saying. Anyone calls out of the blue, doesn’t give basic details, all mysterious and like?” I didn’t roll my eyes, but my voice conveyed the “well, d’uh” more than J deserved. “That’s half the fun!”
My mentor shook his head and mock-sighed. I love J more than life, but he and I diverge pretty seriously on our ideas of fun.
“If you wanted, I could get you a job…” He let the offer trail off, the same way he did every time he made it. J had, once upon a time, worked for the State, and then did some work for a high-powered law firm that still listed him on the masthead, even though he hadn’t, as far as I knew, taken on a case in over a decade. If I couldn’t be a cop, I guess his reasoning went, why not be a paralegal, or even a lawyer?
Just the idea made me want to tear my fingernails off and use them to dig an escape route. I never, ever told him that, though I suspected he knew.
“There’s just something about that message,’ I said, doing my usual not-a-response to his offer. “Something that makes my ears prick up, and no, I don’t know why. I figured I might do a scrying, see what comes forward.”
“You and your crystals.” The disgust in his voice this time was real.
“Just because we’ve got all modern and scientific with current doesn’t mean some of the old ways aren’t valid.” It was an old argument, older even than the split between Council and lonejacks. When Founder Ben – Benjamin Franklin to Nulls – nailed down the connection between electricity and current with his kite-and-key trick, most Talent changed too, working the scientific angle to figure out more and more efficient ways to do things – and how to work this increasingly electric world to our benefit. A lot of the theories and practices of Old Magic got tossed, and good riddance, but I’d discovered that I could scry better with a focus object than with current alone, and the smoother and rounder the shape, the better.
So yeah, I have a crystal ball. Deal.
“I just…” It was difficult to vocalize what I wasn’t really sure of. J was patient, waiting.
“There’s something familiar about the voice. No, it’s not someone I’ve ever met. I’m not even sure I’ve ever heard the voice before, either, so it’s not a radio announcer or anything. But it’s still familiar, like I’ve got memories associated with it, except I can’t access those memories, either.” I’m usually pretty good at that, too, so J didn’t press further.
“Hinky,” my mentor instead diagnosed with confidence, putting his glass down and heading into the kitchen as something chimed a warning. Rupert abandoned my petting, and trudged after his master.
J was probably right. Whatever that mysterious call was about, it was not going to be for an entry-level office management job with decent pay and benefits. But it wasn’t like I had anything else urgent or particularly interesting to do, except maybe give Gerry a call.
This mysterious meeting sounded like it might have more potential.
Later that night, back in my hotel room, I got out my crystals. The plain wooden box, about the size of a shoebox, was lined in thick, nubby linen – silk was so clichéd – and held three scrying pieces: a rose quartz ball about the size of my palm, a clear quartz shard the size of a pencil, and my traditional, kerchief-and-skirts scrying globe, also clear quartz. The third piece wasn’t entirely clear all the way through, with an imperfection about midway, but that really didn’t matter for my purposes.
The rose quartz stayed in the box; I wasn’t going to need that one tonight. Sitting cross-legged on the hotel room bed, the lights out and the television off, I put the ball down in front of me, and kept the shard in my hand.
It was warm, like it had been waiting for me to pick it up. J taught me that everything had current, even inanimate objects, but I wasn’t sensitive enough – what the old-timers called Pure – to pick it up.
Pure or low-res, all Talent use current, and we all use it about the same way, but I’ve never heard anyone describe it exactly the same way. It’s like sex, or religion, I guess; you gravitate toward whatever works for you. Me, I like things tangible. As in life, so in my head, as in my head, so created in current.
The smaller crystal helped me ground and center. I had an even smaller black quartz one that I wore on a chain, but J thought that was sloppy, and reflected badly on his training, so I didn’t use it too often.
“Breathe in, breathe out. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6…”
By five, as usual, I was down deep in my own core, the current I carried with me all the time. You could source current from outside, either tame – man made wiring, power plants, stuff like that – or wild. Wild was ley lines, electrical storms, that sort of thing. Nature’s own energy. There were pluses and minuses to both, which was why you always wanted to maintain your own power, filtered, tamed, and tuned to your own quirks. Core-current was safer to use, faster to call up, and no surprises lurking in the power-stream.
I put the fragment down, and placed my hand on the globe, palm down on the top. The stone was cool at first, and then my fingers began to prickle. I opened my eyes and looked down. Sparks were flicking inside the globe, running from my fingertip down to the imperfection, where they fractured and bounced back to the surface. They were mostly red, which wasn’t what I wanted. I focused, turning one strand this way, another that, and the hues faded to a more useful blue. Like cooking, you could do a lot with basic ingredients and a few pots, but it was easier when you had everything properly prepped.
“All right, baby, show me what you got. What’s waiting at tomorrow’s interview for me?”
That was about the level of specifics I hung at. There might be a way to get actual details out of the future, but I’d never known anyone who could do it consistently – and then there was the problem of interpreting those details. What seems perfectly obvious in a precog has a tendency to go another way entirely when it’s all happening.
But vague? Vague I could do.
The crystal was filled with blue sparks now, and I lifted my hand away from it slowly, not wanting to startle anything. “Whatcha got for me? What’s waiting for me?”
The sparks began to settle, and I opened myself up to whatever visual might come.
Letters. Black against pale blue, hard and spikey letters like someone writing fast and angry.
And then the crystal – my damned expensive quartz globe – cracked like overheated safety glass, shards and chunks scattering all over the bed.
I stared down at the mess, feeling the sting on my skin where tiny fragments must have nicked me.
“Shhhesh.” I pulled a shard out of my hair, and dropped it into the largest pile of debris. “All right, fine. I can take a damned hint.”
At least I knew one thing for certain. Whoever had called, whoever was setting this up? Way stronger Talent than me. And there was something else to seriously consider: that blast could have hurt me – any of those shards might easily have done damage – but didn’t.
I got up, yanked the cover off the bed and wrapped up the corpse of my crystal in it, and dropped it to the side of the room, where Housekeeping could deal with it later, then put a do not disturb sign on the door.
Big day tomorrow. I needed my sleep.