Published by Saga Press on February 2 2016
The moment I saw the cover for this book, I knew I had to read it. This is going to be one of my favorite covers of the year, no doubt. And even better, the story inside is just as magical and exciting. Lee Kelly brings something new to the table in the urban fantasy genre, making her an author to keep an eye on. I loved the blend of magic, action and romance, and I was swept away with Kelly’s irresistible world-building.
Set in an alternate history 1920s, A Criminal Magic takes place in a United States where the use of magic has become illegal. Just like speakeasies in the Prohibition era, sorcerers who still wish to perform magic must do so undercover, in underground establishments called “shine rooms.” There, they take to the stage and perform for small audiences, with the highlight of the performance being the creation of “shine,” a magical drink created from water that provides a drug-like euphoria and high. But there’s a catch to shine—in fact, there’s a big catch to all types of magic—true magic only lasts one day, after which it disappears or turns back into water, in the case of shine. Because of that unbendable law of magic, shine can only be consumed right after it’s made.
The story alternates between two characters’ points of view. Joan Kendrick is a young woman living in Virginia who’s nearly destitute. Her mother died six months before the story begins, killed in a magical mishap, and now Joan helps out in her Uncle Jed’s shine room, trying to stay afloat and keep her young sister Ruby safe. Because of her mother’s terrible accident, Joan has locked away her own powerful magic with a blood spell, and she’s determined never to use it again. But when notorious crime boss Harrison Gunn visits Uncle Jed, asking him to join the crew of elite sorcerers he’s putting together, Joan convinces him to take her instead, as Gunn’s promise of riches is too tempting to pass up.
Meanwhile, Alex Danfrey is a sorcerer in hot water of his own. His father has just gone to jail for stealing magic spells from his own company and selling them on the black market, and Alex was his right-hand man, using concealing spells and other magic to help his father’s illegal business. And now the Feds have made him a deal: join the Prohibition Unit to help bring down a dangerous crime family, and the Feds will keep Alex out of prison. It’s not much of a choice, and so Alex joins up, determined to do good in order to atone for his past.
But trouble lies ahead for both Joan and Alex, and eventually their stories converge in a blaze of illegal magic and dangerous alliances, as the secrets they are keeping threaten their growing attraction to each other.
I absolutely loved the world-building in A Criminal Magic. Kelly has created an alternate Roaring Twenties that incorporates all the best elements of classic noir—gangsters, guns, secrets and lies—and revamped it by substituting illegal magic for alcohol. Shine is an addictive and highly sought after potion that can only be made by a sorcerer, which makes those with the magic touch valuable assets. Kelly also gives her sorcerers the ability to do other kinds of magic, like conjuring illusions out of thin air, commanding the elements, and building walls that conceal and protect. If you’ve seen the movie Now You See Me, it reminded me a bit of the large-scale illusions in that film.
The structure of the story worked well, and I enjoyed spending time with Joan and Alex separately and getting to know them before they come together in the Red Den, Gunn’s performance venue in Washington, D.C. I think I was drawn to Alex a little more than Joan, simply because I didn’t always like her character. Joan has always been under the thumb of someone older and more powerful that she is, and I think it’s hard for her to stand up for herself. But although her motivations seemed pure—doing whatever it takes to keep her sister safe—I felt she gave in way too easily and made so many bad choices, that I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. She eventually wises up and embraces her power, but it takes a long time for her to get to that point.
And I think Joan is a good example of my one issue with the story, which is that this felt very much like a young adult novel. I’m not sure the characters ages are ever stated, but I believe they are supposed to be in their early 20s, or at least I got the impression they were “of age.” However, the first person present tense narrative really made this feel like YA to me, and while it did give the story an immediacy that added to the tension, it’s just not my favorite narrative style.
But when Joan and Alex finally meet, the story suddenly blossoms. Their on-page charisma was exciting, and it didn’t hurt that Kelly gives them a fierce attraction to each other. I loved reading about how strong magic can be when two or more sorcerers work together to create it, and there were some thrilling scenes in the bar where Joan and Alex are hired to not only put on spectacular shows, but to brew their magical shine for the bar patrons.
I was not expecting that ending, though! I’m not sure if A Criminal Magic is slated to be a series, but the author definitely leaves the door open a crack just in case. If you’re looking for an exciting and fast-paced story and you have a taste for illegal magic (and you wish you could try shine yourself!), then I suggest you get a hold of a copy as soon as possible.