Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Review: Bad Magic

You like books about magic. You like books about monsters. You like books about a ragtag group of heroes fighting impossible odds. So why haven't you read Bad Magic yet?

In Stephan Zielinski's Bad Magic, mundane reality and many competing forms of magic are all thrown together. If you're tired of those cut-and-dry books in which the real world and the magical world are clearly delineated, or you get the real world but with a single magical element (the real world and vampires, the real world and voodoo, the real world and cosmic horror, etc), Bad Magic is the cure for what ails you. All the various kinds of supernatural forces are piled in together, squeezed in like too many people trying to crowd into an elevator.

You get the raw power of elemental magic, illicit alchemy that seems more like felonious drug use than science, deep dark voodoo, magic that has you babbling in Sumerian, magic that has you weaving lightbeams and siphoning sounds, creepy ghost-like magic, and even magic that lets you talk to giant clams.

The eight main characters all have different approaches to magic, and they argue at times about how to approach and interpret what has been happening in the story. This is when Stephan Zielinski really shines. We get eight distinct characters, each with their own habits, perspectives, shortcomings, and endearing qualities:

There's Al Rider, arguably the main character, a nebbish coward who is the closest to a traditional magician.

There's Pericles "Perry" Whitlomb, who has no magic of his own but is an expert on the occult and a member of the Van Helsing Society. He also packs his father's supply of incredibly overpowered firearms and serves as a paternal figure for the others.

There's Maggie-Sue, a nearly illiterate young woman whose main means of communication are glares and profanity. Her magic is elemental, meaning it's the oldest, most basic kind of magic.

There's Joe Washington, a black dwarf who knows voodoo and Bruce Lee-style ass-kicking.

There's Chloe Lee, whose totem animal is, I kid you not, the Mollusk of Glory, the Great Geoduck clam.

There's Max Sturgeon, a large man with a serious mustache who, though he barely uses magic, leads the team based on the fact that he's probably the only sane person in the group.

There's Kris Arbeiter, the pretty-boy, East German alchemist/junky.

And finally there's Creedon Thiebaud, who's so over-the-top badass that you don't mind that he's just a tad cliche.

The plot is straightforward when you get down to it: the city is being threatened by a cult and it's up to our heroes to save the day. But the plot isn't the strength of the story: this is definitely a journey that's more important than the destination. The things you see along the way, the people you meet and the things they do, are what make this book a success. The world buzzes with energy and life, and there is no doubt that there is material here for a whole series of novels.

Unfortunately, that also makes it hard to write a review, because while I would love to go on and on about the cool things in this story, I don't want to spoil it for you, and I also don't want end up re-writing the novel.

The storytelling is very cinematic and readable. Some knowledge of the Bay Area (or Google Maps) is recommended, as it takes place in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Sometimes it can be a little bit hard to tell what's going on, but that doesn't distract from how quickly you can tear through this book.

The ending of the book was a bit unexpected and anticlimactic. There were also several elements that felt like the author expected to develop them but never got around to them... maybe he's saving them for the sequel!

Like I said before, though, you're not reading this book for the plot or for everything to be tied neatly together in the end. You're reading it for one of the most enjoyable depictions of magic I have ever seen, and that's saying something.

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