Stage Magic and Shapeshifting in the Gilded Age: The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer

Muggle magic is a big part of my life—my husband is a professional magician, after all. So whenever I see a book out there that has a character skilled in sleight-of-hand, my eyebrows perk up. And when I come across a book that combines the wonders of prestidigitation with historical fantasy, my eyebrows just about fly off my face. Caroline Stevermer’s The Glass Magician is just such a book; in it, we follow Thalia Cutler, a stage magician (based on the real-life stage performer Dell O’Dell) who performs across the United States during the turn of the 19th century.

Thalia’s world, however, is different from the Gilded Age we read about in our high school history books. In this alternate history, those in high society are called Traders, and have the ability to shapeshift into one type of animal. Cutler starts the novel thinking she and her muggle magic partner Nutall are, like most people, magic-less Solitaries. This supposition becomes unfounded as the story progresses, however, and Thalia and Nutall’s true natures reveal themselves.

The book’s magical system (there’s a third class called the Sylvestri, who appear to have powers that are tied to nature) is one of the most intriguing parts of The Glass Magician. Stevermer does a good job weaving the magic into the social structure and culture of the time, and if anything, I wanted more details: How did the Traders become so rich, for example? (Being able to turn into an otter or a swan is cool and all, but I’m not imaginative enough to see how that translates into becoming a member of the 1%.) And what can the Sylvestri actually do with their powers? Given this is likely the first book in a series, however, I’m heartened to know there will be an opportunity to further explore these and other questions in subsequent novels.

Another thing The Glass Magician does well is how it integrates the worldbuilding into the book’s major plot, which revolves around the murder of Thalia’s rival, the odious Von Faber the Magnificent, who dies on stage when someone tampers with the gun used for The Bullet Catch trick. (The Bullet Catch, for those who aren’t married to a magician, is an infamous stage illusion that has been performed for centuries. It’s a dangerous trick that involves the magician “catching” a fired bullet in their teeth, and it’s arguably best known for killing the popular stage magician Chung Ling Soo in 1918 when, like in Von Faber’s case, the equipment used in the trick fails. Unlike the fictional Von Faber, however, it’s generally agreed upon that Chung Ling Soo’s accident was merely that—an accident.)

Given that Von Faber shut down their 2-week run in New York City just days before his death, Thalia and Nutall become the prime suspects for his murder. As the whodunit caper plays out, Thalia’s whole world is turned upside down for other reasons as well; among other things, Nutall—her only confidant since her father’s death—mysteriously disappears, and she finds herself a reluctant guest of the Ryker family, well-to-do Traders who live on Riverside Drive. Thalia first finds herself there to tutor the young Nell, who—much to her brother’s disgust—has an interest in learning stage magic. The two women, both strong characters who are delightful to root for, form a friendship. And when things take a turn for Thalia, it’s Nell who is there to support and guide the magician through her personal challenges.

Even though Thalia lives in a world with shapeshifters and murderous manticores (once-human creatures who feed off of young Traders), her struggles and path toward self-discovery resonate for those of us living in our mundane version of the 21st century. Many of us will have a time in our lives (or many times) where we find out that our understanding of the world, the very tenets that our reality is based on, have become completely undone; and most of us have also strived to better understand who we truly are, which more often than not is not what we think society expects from us. These trials are universal and yet extremely intimate—and you can’t help but hope Thalia makes it through her own troubles and comes out on the other side stronger for it.

Without giving too much away, The Glass Magician does provide some resolution to Thalia’s problems, although there are some major open threads she still needs to grapple with in later books. The murder mystery is solved, however, and some of Thalia’s other questions are answered as well. And just like Thalia, the sky’s the limit for where this series can go from here—there are more mysteries to solve, and more of this fantastical world to explore.

The Glass Magician is available from Tor Books.

Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.

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