A Promising Debut: City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender

City of Broken Magic is Mirah Bolender’s debut novel. I’ve read a lot of debut novels in my time (and will undoubtedly read many more), so I feel confident in my conclusion that City of Broken Magic is the kind of debut one calls promising.

City of Broken Magic sets itself in a secondary fantasy world where humans live huddled into well-defended cities. Hundreds of years before the novel’s beginning, a colonised people tried to fight back against their colonisers by creating a weapon that ate magic. They succeeded a little too well, creating something that can hatch from broken or empty magical amulets and that can consume everything in its path. These infestations, as they’re known, are extremely dangerous and require specialised knowledge and equipment to combat. The people who do this job are known as “Sweepers,” and their mortality rate can be high.

Especially in the city of Amicae, where most of City of Broken Magic‘s action is set. For Amicae’s powers-that-be, it’s an article of political faith that Amicae doesn’t get infestations, that their city is somehow immune. The official story is that all the infestations that happen within Amicae’s walls are the fault of the mobs, criminal gangs fostering small infestations as a particularly terrifying method of assassination.

Unfortunately for Amicae, the official story is wrong.

City of Broken Magic‘s protagonist, Laura Kramer, is an apprentice Sweeper as well as its only human viewpoint character. Her boss, Clae Sinclair, is secretive, hard to please, and uncommunicative outside of work. He’s also Amicae’s last Sweeper, only heir to what was once a family business, close-mouthed about his family and with a string of dead apprentices whose failure to stay alive he uses as teaching tools for his current apprentice. Amicae’s official lack of support for Sweepers, and concomitant lack of respect of them, means that Sinclair’s job is even harder than it would be under other circumstances. And thus Laura’s job, too.

Amicae is a city with bicycles and trams, public transport and cinema and radios, a city that feels inflected by an American vision of the 1920s—a vision lacking the defining trauma of WWI, but one that feels nonetheless influenced by a technological and social moment. Women in Amicae are expected to marry, and those who bear children out of wedlock are derided. The dialogue of some of the characters, and Laura’s family’s expectations for her, seems to be at odds with a world in which female reporters, councillors, police officers, and chiefs of police are unremarkable things: a minor worldbuilding niggle, but one which itched at me. (I’m unreasonably easily distracted by minor things: I’m still trying to work out the logistics of how agriculture and stock-raising in sufficient quantity to feed whole large cities works in this setting. I’m also distracted by how most of the names of cities in Bolender’s setting appear to be random Latin words, while the names of characters feel American.)

The novel’s worldbuilding, in the form of infestations and the social response to it, is its big idea. City of Broken Magic is the story of an emergency response unit, and in narrative and stylistic terms, it feels one part thriller, one part procedural, and one part professional coming-of-age for its viewpoint character. Bolender writes action very well, building tension into every escalating encounter with infestations (and with the political consequences of Amicae’s “it can’t happen here” beliefs). The interpersonal relationships—Laura’s prickly relationship with her boss, her jealousy of his professional attention and teaching when a second apprentice joins their team, and her relationship with her family and with that second apprentice—are also well done, but sometimes feel contradictory in ways that don’t seem to have been deliberately intended.

Laura’s an interesting character, with a compelling voice. She’s very young—not yet twenty—and still learning how to be an adult. Her struggles are those of a young woman determining her place in the world, and in a dangerous career—and of a naturally curious person who’s deeply interested in all the things her boss doesn’t like to talk about.

Along with a spike in the number and strength of infestations, Laura and Clae have to deal with the machinations of unscrupulous businessmen and the threat of foreign agents. City of Broken Magic is a fast-paced, exciting ride. And an entertaining one. I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Bolender does next.

City of Broken Magic is available from Tor Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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