It’s 1926 and magic in the United States has been prohibited through the 18th Amendment. For the last six years magic has gone underground. Shine, a concoction of liquid magic brewed by magicians, has the nation worked up into a froth of paranoia and addiction. Mobsters run back alley speakeasies and and petty criminals push backwoods moonshine while the federal agents in the Prohibition Unit struggles to hold back the surging tide of murdered junkies and drug runners.
Alex Danfrey joins the Unit to bury his past and pay for his own misdeeds after his father went to jail for peddling shine and covered for Alex, the real magician. His boss knows his secrets, however, and backs him into a corner, forcing him to go undercover in the Shaw Gang. If he can score enough intel to bust the whole family the Unit will clear his name…but if the Shaws catch him out they’ll kill him. In rural Virginia, Joan Kendrick struggles to keep her family afloat while her uncle drowns himself in his own shine after witnessing the brutal death of Joan’s mother. A mysterious criminal named Gunn makes her an offer she can’t refuse and deposits her in a magic joint in Washington D.C. She and her six magical compatriots will have to pull off the impossible if they want to survive.
Joan carries the secrets of blood magic much as Alex holds his own abilities close to his chest, but circumstances beyond their control will expose them whether they want it or not. As their fates intertwine ever closer, Joan and Alex are pushed into choices they aren’t prepared to make. The magic they both love might be the one thing to tear them apart, and if they’re not careful, destroy everyone they care about.
A Criminal Magic has been described as fantasy, urban fantasy, and alt history, but the only one that really sticks is the first. Washington D.C. as a city doesn’t play nearly enough of a role in the story to qualify for urban fantasy. For urban fantasy, the metropolis setting should be as instrumental to the tone and story as the characters, but here I kept forgetting the story was set in D.C. instead of a generic version of New York City.
As for alt history, there simply isn’t enough larger world building. History is a continuous series of overlapping ripples caused by many different kinds of disruptive events of varying breadth and impact. Adding or removing an impact effects all the other ripples in myriad ways, many not obvious but some most certainly crucial. Kelly crafts A Criminal Magic with Prohibition functioning less like a particular moment in American history and more like an interesting circumstance to play with out of context. It’s a simple swap of liquor for spells with no social momentum leading up to it or the cultural chaos that ensued.
Prohibition not only had a massive effect on the world after its passage but was intimately entangled with a host of socio-cultural debates in the era leading up to its passage as the 18th Amendment in 1919. The political mobilization of women had a lot to do with prohibition getting passed, as banning alcohol was sometimes framed as a moral imperative to protect women and children from abusive men. It was an early women’s liberation tool, a way for women to protect themselves through political force, and they used that force to extract their right to vote. It was also fueled by America’s rampant xenophobia and isolationism. This tied back into the morality component through the involvement of the longstanding Protestant temperance movement, which was also vehemently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant—hence the KKK tarring and feathering bootleggers. Not to mention how speakeasies made jazz popular with white audiences and all the glitz we now associate with the Age of Wonderful Nonsense.
And absolutely none of that is touched on in A Criminal Magic. Even something as simple as era-appropriate slang would’ve helped a great deal in grounding the story to the period. These nitpicks don’t automatically downgrade the quality, mind. But maybe overlook the marketing buzzwords on this and don’t count on hitting specific subgenre markers.
Frankly, the book could use a little more world building as a whole. The magic system left me as confused as the characters were, and a better sense of society outside the handful of locations and varying degrees of gangsters would have added some depth to the background. While no one is expressly described by their race, it was clear the leads were white. Furthermore, since readers tend to default colorblind character descriptions to white, the lack of overt diversity was glaring. Until the 1950s D.C.’s population was anywhere from a quarter to a third Black. Having a couple of minor characters with no real impact on the main arc and who appear in only a few pages be the only minorities in the entire book strains plausibility on all fronts (and of course they practice the stereotypical, Hollywood version of Voodoo).
But enough with the downer stuff. As straight up fantasy, A Criminal Magic is a solid, well-written tale. Joan and Alex have fresh, personal perspectives of the excesses of the Jazz Age, viewpoints Kelly portrays by jumping between their first person narratives. Their romance, while obvious from the get-go, was endearingly sweet. Where some writers might pull their punches to keep their leads likable, Kelly lets Alex and Joan make difficult, unpopular, and selfish choices that fit their personalities. If nothing else, they never become ciphers or plot devices. My biggest gripe here was that their romance felt slightly too rushed. Instead of being allowed to grow naturally it came off as too Romeo and Juliet. Their emotions felt genuine to their personalities, however, even if the pacing didn’t give the reader a chance to settle into the budding relationship.
Although the story takes a bit to get started, the premise has enough of a hook to get the reader invested early on. Easily the best part of the whole book are Kelly’s descriptions of magic. Her magic is evocative, like living in a painting. It’s understandable why mundanes would want to drown themselves in sorcerer’s shine. Who could reject something that vivid and gorgeous? But it’s the ending that is going to have everyone talking. The final plot twist is a punch in the gut. It comes on hard and fast, an adrenaline-fueled rampage of bitter revenge and bloody schemes. There are enough threads seemingly left intentionally loose to allow for a sequel, though as far as I know this is a standalone novel. If Kelly ever decides to revisit, I’ll be waiting.
A Criminal Magic is available now from Saga Press.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.