Recommended Reads Saturday: Magic to the Bone by Devon Monk
I am recommending this book because The fantasy genre of magic users in urban settings is turned on its head and re-imagined in this Portland, Oregon-based series about Allie Beckstrom, magic Hound and reluctant daughter of the city’s most powerful businessman. Magic is available to all, but the use of it exacts a steep price; for some, it’s illness or migraines, for Allie, it’s that plus holes in her memory. She can Hound spells to see who cast them, who off-loaded the pain of doing so on innocent and unsuspecting victims.
There are a number of things I love about this series. Allie is so vulnerable herself and yet she is fiercely loyal, the first to come to the aid of others. She has no money, having refused her father’s fortune and influence; she carries a notebook and pen to record her activities in case of memory loss. She is funny, smart and determined and, in later books, has The Best Sidekick Ever: Stone, the accidentally re-animated gargoyle.
Portland makes a great setting, too, perhaps because I’ve spent time there, but also because it’s not the usual urban location. Rainy and cloudy days–except for two weeks in July–lend themselves very well to my idea of magic.
There is a romantic interest for Allie, a powerful magic user of Native-African-American-Asian descent. Not the usual hero, and his intentions are not immediately clear. Their relationship is sweet, sad and hopeful, one of the most satisfying I’ve read.
The world of magic here is harsh and cutthroat; alliances change or are revealed to be other than first thought. The idea of magic as a commodity, like electricity, makes for an interesting and complicated environment. Allie’s uneasy relationship with her father takes some unexpected turns and I have no idea how that will play out.
I should mention that Ms. Monk’s website has been rated by some WOT (web of trust) users as unsafe. I’ve never had a problem from visiting there and am dismayed that an internet tool would be wielded like that for who-knows-what reason. I hope DA readers won’t avoid the books or the site because of that.
The following is an excerpt from Magic to the Bone posted with the approval of the editor of Devon Monk.
It was the morning of my twenty fifth birthday, and all I wanted was a decent cup of coffee, a hot breakfast, and a couple hours away from the stink of used magic that seeped through the walls of my apartment building every time it rained.
My current fortune of ten bucks wasn’t going to get me that hot breakfast, but it was going to buy a good dark Kenya roast and maybe a muffin down at Get Mugged. What more could a girl ask for?
I took a quick shower, pulled on jeans, a black tank top and boots. I brushed my dark hair back and tucked it behind my ears, hoping for the short, wet, sexy look. I didn’t bother with make-up. Being six foot tall and the daughter of one of the most notorious businessmen in town got me enough attention. So did my pale green eyes, athletic build, and the family knack for coercion.
I pulled on my jacket, careful not to jostle my left shoulder too much. The scars across my deltoid still hurt, even though the creep with the knife had jumped me three months ago. I had known the scars might be permanent, but I didn’t know they would hurt so much every time it rained. Blood magic, when improperly wielded by an uneducated street hustler, was a pain that just kept on giving. Lucky me.
One of these days, when my student loans were paid off, and I’d dug my credit rating out of the toilet, I’d be able to turn down cheap Hounding jobs that involved back-alley drug deals and black market revenge spells. Hell, maybe I’d even have enough money to afford a cell phone again.
I patted my pocket to make sure the small, leather bound book and pen were there. I didn’t go anywhere without those two things with me. I couldn’t. Not if I wanted to remember who I was when things went bad. And things seemed to be going bad a lot lately.
I made it as far as the door. The phone rang. I paused, trying to decide if I should answer it. The phone had come with the apartment, and like the apartment it was as low-tech as legally allowed, which meant there was no caller ID.
It could be my dad–or more likely his secretary of the month– delivering the obligatory annual birthday lecture. It could be my friend Nola, if she had left her farm and gone into town to use a pay phone. It could be my landlord asking for the rent I hadn’t paid. Or it could be a Hounding job.
I let go of the doorknob and walked over to the phone. Let the happy news begin.
“Allie, girl?” It was Mama Rossitto, from the worst part of North Portland. Her voice sounded flat and fuzzy, broken by the cheap land line. Ever since I did a couple Hounding jobs for Mama a few months ago, she treated me like I was the only person in the city who could trace lines of magic back its user and abuser.
“Yes, Mama, it’s me.”
“You fix. You fix for us.”
“Can it wait? I was headed to breakfast.”
“You come now. Right now,” Mama’s voice had a pitch in it that had nothing to do with the bad connection. She sounded panicked. Angry. “Boy is hurt. Come now.”
The phone clacked down, but must not have hit the cradle. I heard the clash of dishes pushed into the sink, the sputter of a burner snapping to life, then Mama’s voice, farther off, shouting to one of her many sons–half of whom were runaways she’d taken in–and all of whom answered to the name Boy.
I heard something else too, a high, light whistle like a string buzzing in the wind, softer than a wheezy newborn. I’d heard that sound before. I tried to place it, and found holes where my memory should be.
Using magic meant it used you back. Forget the fairytale hocus-pocus, wave a wand and bling-o, sparkles and pixie dust crap. Magic, like booze, sex, and drugs, gave as good as it got. But unlike booze and the rest, magic could do incredible good. In the right hands, used the right way, it could save lives, ease pain, and streamline the complexities of the modern world. Magic was revolutionary, like electricity, penicillin, plastic, and in the thirty years since it had been discovered and made accessible to the general public, magic had done a lot of good.
At first, everyone wanted a piece of it–magically enhanced food, fashion, entertainment, sex. And then the reality of such use set in. Magic always takes its due from the user, and the price is always pain. It didn’t take people long to figure out how to transfer that pain to someone else, though.
Laws were put in place to regulate who could access the magic and how and why. But there weren’t enough police to keep up with stolen cars and murders in the city, much less the misuse of a force no one can see.
Things went downhill fast, and as far as I can tell, they had stayed there.
But while magic made the average Joe pay one painful price each time he used it, sometimes magic double dipped on me. I’d get the expected migraine, flu, roaring fever, or whatever, and then, just for fun, magic would kick a few holes in my memories. It doesn’t happen every time, and doesn’t happen in any pattern I can fathom. Just sometimes when I use magic, it makes me pay the price in pain, then takes a few of my memories for good measure.
That’s why I carried a little blank book–to record important bits of my life. And it’s also why four years at Harvard, pounding tomes for my masters in business magic hadn’t worked out quite the way I’d wanted it to. Still, I was a Hound, and I was good at that. Good enough I could keep food on the table, live in the crappiest part of Old Town, and make the minimum payment on my student loans. And hey, who didn’t have a few memories they wouldn’t mind getting rid of, right?
The phone clattered and the line went dead.
Happy birthday to me.
If Boy had been hurt by magic, Mama should have called 911 for a doctor who knew how to handle those sorts of things, not a Hound like me. Suspicious, superstitious, Mama always thought her family was under magical attack. Not one of the times I’d Hounded for her, had her problem been a magical hit. Just bad luck, spoiled meat, and once, (shudder) cockroaches the size of small dogs.
But I had done some other jobs since I’d set up shop here in Portland. Every one of those sent me sniffing the illegal magical Offloads back to corporations. And nine times out of nine, even that kind of proof, my testimony on the stand, and a high-profile trial, wouldn’t get the corporation much more than a cash penalty.
I rolled my good shoulder to try to get the kink out of my neck, but only managed to make my arm hurt more. I didn’t want to go. But I couldn’t just ignore her call, and there was no other way to get in touch with her. Mama wouldn’t answer the phone. She was convinced it was tapped, though I couldn’t think of anyone who would be interested in the life of a woman who lived in North Portland, in the broken-down neighborhood of St. John’s, a neglected and mostly forgotten place cut off from the magic that flowed through rest of the city.
I tipped my head back, stared at the ceiling and exhaled. Okay. I’d go and make sure Boy was all right. I’d try to talk Mama into calling a doctor. I’d check for any magical wrong-doing. I’d look for rats. I’d bill her half price. Then I would go out for a late birthday breakfast.
A girl could hope, anyway.
I walked out the door and locked it. I didn’t bother with alarm spells. Most single women in the city thought alarm spells would keep them safe, but I knew first hand that if someone wanted badly enough to break into your apartment, there wasn’t a spell worth paying the price for that could keep them out.
I took the stairs instead of the elevator, because I hate small spaces, and made it to the street in no time. The mid-September morning was gray as a grave and cold enough, my breath came out in plumes of steam. The wind gusted off the Willamette River and rain sliced at my bare face.
Portland lived up to its name. Even though it was a hundred miles from the ocean, it had that crumbling brick warehouse and industrial feel of the working port it still was, especially where it had built along the banks of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The Willamette River was practically in my backyard, behind the warehouses, train and bus station. Without squinting I could see four of the mis-matched bridges that crossed the water, connecting downtown with the east side of the city. Over that river and north, close to where the Willamette and Columbia met, was Mama’s neighborhood.
I zipped my coat, pulled up my hood, and wished I’d thought about putting on a sweater before I’d left.
A bus wouldn’t get me to Mama’s fast enough. However, the good thing about being a woman and six foot tall, was that cabs, few and far between though they may be, stopped when you whistled. It didn’t hurt that I had my dad’s good looks, either. When I was in the mood to smile, I could get almost anyone to see things my way, even without using magic. True to the Beckstrom blood, I also had a gift for magic-based Influence. But after watching my dad Influence my mother, his lovers, business partners, and even me, to get his way, I’d sworn off using it.
It wasn’t like I had wanted to go to Harvard. I had Juilliard in mind: art, not business; music, not magic. But my dad had severe ideas about what constituted a useful education.