Onna Gebowa is a talented mage in her small town of Coldridge-on-Sea, and has spent her life preparing to go to the Weltsir University, to study magic and become a great magician. Tsira is a reig, a troll of her clan (with some human lineage) born to leadership, power, and guidance for the day she inherits her mother’s clan. But not everything goes according to plan. Onna finds herself spurned from the University, and Tsira finds herself on her own, each of them seeking their own way forward, a way to become who they’re meant to be, while navigating a world desperate to make them who they think they should be. But when Onna finds apprenticeship in the most unusual of places, and Tsira befriends and nurses a wounded soldier back to health, each of them suddenly finds a new path forward, as well as a new threat to combat. Someone in their world is murdering trolls. With blood on the wind, Onna and Tsira each must do their part to find the murderer, ultimately together, and each work to keep their newly forged lives and friends safe from harm.
In brief, Unnatural Magic, a debut from author C. M. Waggoner, is utterly delightful.
It has all the elements of a parlor room mystery, with the depth and complexity of any sturdy secondary world fantasy, with just enough sense of humor, danger, and reality to round out the whole book into a startling sort of debut. Waggoner has created a world set at about the turn of the century, with a feel of industry sitting alongside a pastoral and intimate world, one which humans share with the mysterious clans of long-lived trolls, who hold a different sort of magic away from their human neighbors. Both have opinions on the others, as human and troll culture are wildly different from the other, but this world exists with mostly respect for each other, until the murders begin. The intricacies of troll society are some of the best parts of the book, as they don’t always conform to human ideas of gender and sexuality, and the quote-unquote inherent ideas of duty that come with either. Watching Tsira work to adjust to human society and its ideas about her, as Jeckran, (the human soldier she rescues) learns the foundations of troll culture and language, are wonderful to read, especially as the two fall for each other, and their ideas of each other grow in that burgeoning relationship.
Likewise, the conventions that human society hold fast to immediately are a challenge for Onna, as she works against the expectations of her role as a woman, let alone one who wishes to work magic. As she pursues her ambitions, taking her all the way to the front door of the Lord-mage of Hexos, we see again and again those that underestimate her always come out looking the fool. Humans of this world, like many in this, seem to think they know what a good life looks like for a young woman. And yet Onna continues to knock down the walls society and culture try to place around her, and in that space, grows, learns, and evolves into becoming her very own woman, in charge of her life and her magic, damned what those around her think she should be doing.
Unnatural Magic isn’t the least bit shy about showcasing the power of women, in direct opposition to those they have to face down. Onna, twice as smart as any male magician she meets has to work twice as hard to prove herself; that she does is still an indictment of a system where she even has to in the first place. Tsira is a powerhouse, intimidating, powerful, and quick; Jeckran quickly learns it is not going to be his job beating up anyone for her honor; Tsira handles her own fights, thank you very much. She’s no wallflower, and often, her blunt, direct way of speaking takes everyone aback, usually after assuming she’s male, from her stature and body type. As we see what the power of women can do when actually supported by institutions built by and for men, it is for the other men of this novel to take stock of the roles they’ve always played, and understand how they can be better. Waggoner, amongst the magic, mayhem, and murder, has written a novel that deftly interrogates the roles that men and women tend to find themselves in, the immense challenges women of all walks of life often must go through to be heard and respected in this world, and what sort of good can be enacted when those women are lifted up by people in power, and treated equally.
Unnatural Magic contains something for everyone. It has gentle, but efficient worldbuilding, with a colorful cast of characters—I haven’t even mentioned the absolute powerhouse chaotic bisexual magician, Loga!. It has lush prose, with poetic turns of phrase scattered throughout. It has romance, certainly, and daring in heaping amounts. It has magic, and it has a mystery at its core. But mostly, what this brilliant debut novel has, is a massive amount of heart. It made me smile and it made me happy, and mostly, it made me very excited to see what Waggoner has cooking next. If it’s anything like Unnatural Magic, sign me up now. She’s absolutely an author to watch.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.