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A Criminal Magic

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Magic is powerful, dangerous and addictive - and after passage of the 18th Amendment, it is finally illegal.

It's 1926 in Washington, DC, and while Anti-Sorcery activists have achieved the Prohibition of sorcery, the city's magic underworld is booming. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters' crime sprees. Smugglers funnel magic contraband in from overseas. Gangs have established secret performance venues where patrons can lose themselves in magic, and take a mind-bending, intoxicating elixir known as the sorcerer's shine.

Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from Norfolk County, Virginia accepts an offer to work for DC's most notorious crime syndicate, the Shaw Gang, when her family's home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, a first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws.

Through different paths, Joan and Alex tread deep into the violent, dangerous world of criminal magic - and when their paths cross at the Shaws' performance venue, despite their orders, and despite themselves, Joan and Alex become enchanted with one another. But when gang alliances begin to shift, the two sorcerers are forced to question their ultimate allegiances and motivations. And soon, Joan and Alex find themselves pitted against each other in a treacherous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.

422 pages, Hardcover

First published February 2, 2016

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About the author

Lee Kelly

4 books289 followers
Lee Kelly is the author of CITY OF SAVAGES, a Publishers Weekly “Best of Spring 2015” pick and a VOYA Magazine “Perfect Ten” selection, A CRIMINAL MAGIC, which was optioned and developed for a television series by Warner Bros., and THE ANTIQUITY AFFAIR, co-written with Jennifer Thorne (forthcoming from Harper Muse in 2023).

Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Gingerbread House, Orca, and Tor.com, among other publications, and she is an MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced law in Los Angeles and New York. She currently lives with her husband and two children in New Jersey, where you’ll find them engaged in one adventure or another.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 378 reviews
Profile Image for Darth J .
417 reviews1,243 followers
February 11, 2016

Criminally Dull

It was yet another book that's described as " The Night Circus meets [insert something else]" and unsurprisingly it didn't live up to the high expectations it set for itself. [Deadpan:] "Imagine that."

I'm really tired of these amateurish books comparing themselves like that; all that does is disappoint. And this time is no different. The characters are flat, the world is depressing and uninteresting. I just couldn't finish it.

Verdict: Save yourself the time and skip this forgettable book.
Profile Image for Mogsy (MMOGC).
1,985 reviews2,584 followers
February 2, 2016
4 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum http://bibliosanctum.com/2016/02/01/b...

The year is 1926. In our real world, America would have been in the throes of the “Prohibition era”, a time in the twenties to early-thirties marked by a nationwide ban on the sale, production and importation of alcohol. But in the world of A Criminal Magic, it is sorcery and its related activities and products that are ruled illegal by the passing of the 18th Amendment.

However, the attempt to clamp down on the “evils” of magic only resulted in creating new types of crime—and lots more of it. Activity in the criminal underworld has exploded, with smugglers transporting magical contraband into the country from overseas. Gang bosses have also set up secret dens in the cities where customers can indulge in clandestine magic shows while guzzling the “shine”, an ensorcelled beverage with euphoric but highly addictive effects. In the middle of this are two young people who come from very different beginnings, but both end up walking the path that leads them to working for the notorious Washington D.C. criminal organization known as the Shaw Gang.

Speaking of which, their story brings to mind that old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Both Joan Kendrick and Alex Danfrey are on this journey for similar reasons, hoping to atone for past sins—except the former is in it to do right by her family, while the latter is seeking redemption and revenge. To keep her cousin and little sister fed and sheltered, Joan agrees to work as an entertainer in the Shaws’ finest club, the Red Den. Alex’s history on the other hand is much more complicated, being the son of a businessman who was convicted for racketeering for the mob. A trainee in the Federal Prohibition Unit, Alex was well on his way to becoming just another apathetic and dirty cop when he is suddenly offered the opportunity to turn his life around by acting as a mole to infiltrate the Shaws.

A Criminal Magic offers genuine entertainment. The atmosphere, the suspense and the gorgeous magic is all there, and for the most part it was a smashing hit with me. I am always crazy for alternate history because it is such a thrill seeing what authors can do with the time period, and I just love having new experiences in general. In that sense, this book was everything I wanted and definitely took me on a wild ride. So many of the ideas here electrified me, from the sorcerer’s shine to magical teamwork! It’s an ambitious novel to be sure, but while a thousand and one things could have gone wrong, Kelly pulled it all together beautifully. It was an absolute joy to read her elegant prose and storytelling.

Was the book perfect? No, though I have to say it was damned nearly so. I was most disappointed that the Roaring Twenties didn’t come through as fully as it could have, falling just short of being convincing or immersive. Aside from the occasional mention of men in fedoras and awkward insertions of “dame” in the dialogue, this novel could have taken place anywhere and anytime else. I was able to also foresee most of the story because of its rather shallow plot involving the same old power struggles and betrayals, a timeworn scenario considering how predictably it features in every other gangster movie ever made. If mob films happen to be your thing, you might find portions of the novel overly simplistic and not particularly original (like Alex’s recruitment before graduation and his subsequent stint in prison to increase his credibility, for example, which was plot point a straight out of The Departed.)

Character development also felt a little thin for supporting characters, though Joan and Alex were written very well. Still, they were hard to embrace wholeheartedly because I found both to be so naïve and, in Joan’s case, so self-absorbed. It’s interesting how my feelings for them at the end of the book were a complete turnaround from how I felt about them at the beginning. I loathed Alex with every fiber of my being when he was first introduced, but by the final chapters he had become a favorite. Meanwhile, my opinion of Joan started high but fell with every wrong move and weak excuse she made. Their romance didn’t feel right to me either, almost like forces outside the fourth wall were pushing them into the relationship instead of letting it occur naturally.

Of course, these are all minor issues. None of them are even close to deal breaking, and the book’s magic and stunning climax and conclusion also made up for a lot of them.

A Criminal Magic is an example of great storytelling, with an extraordinarily unique vision. While it didn’t quite meet all my expectations, it’s still a solid novel that I would recommend to others without hesitation. My first book by Lee Kelly was a great experience, and now it’s got me eyeing my copy of her debut City of Savages with hungry curiosity!
Profile Image for Lee Kelly.
Author 4 books289 followers
July 13, 2015
A Criminal Magic is my second novel, and takes place in an alternative version of my favorite time period, the Roaring Twenties. It involves gangsters, undercover cops, family spells and magic elixirs, and at least in my head, looks something like this:

(I clearly had fun writing this :)
Profile Image for Nastassja.
423 reviews966 followers
March 19, 2016

Buddy read with my fellow magicians Katerina & Vera. Girls, we survived!

Actual rating: 2.5

You know the feeling when you eat something that is not sour or sweet, but indistinguishable. You can't decide whether you like it or if it's just strange and confusing, and you never want to taste it again. That is how I feel about this book. Indecisive. I don't even have much to tell about it, because it was too average, too insipid. All I feel is a shattering relief that I finally finished reading it. Finally! The concept of mixing magic and criminal world of 1920s is amazing. I don't remember ever reading a book like that! I and my friends were intrigued beyond words. The execution, though... It all started vividly: MCs were complex with dubious morals, the magic was strange and even terrifying at times, heck, if you watched Peaky Blinders and felt the gangster world vibe from it, you can imagine what I felt at first.

So fucking close to perfection! But soon enough things got boring and distilled and nothing kept my attention any longer. Romance. What romance? We have two people with deep feelings for each other, but when did they have time to develop such feelings? According to the book, they spent enough time together, but to us, readers, it was a couple of clandestine meetings and insignificant conversations and, voilà, the romance is cooked!

Then there's magic. What magic? We have this thing called shine, which is a magical cocktail a person must drink. And that's it. All book is spinning around that drink and how rich and powerful it can make some gangsters. What greater purpose? What darker magic? No. No. No.

We are said that our heroine is a powerful sorcerer. She can do big magic. She can do dark magic. But all she does is cook moonshine - a magical one, yes, but still just a moonshine.

Let alone the pacing of the book which is slow and boring and couldn't keep my attention for long. There's something happening in the book, but nothing's really happening. The writing is not bad, it's good actually, but the way the events are presented to us is not engrossing. No 1920s vibe in the book. I felt the criminal world, but I didn't feel the era it was taken place in. A couple of words as dame and doll is all you gonna have from 20s.

I'd say that the ending was good and some action at last happened, but for me it was like watching a repeat of Peaky Blinders' last episode: some events were identical. It seems author took the idea of Peaky Blinders and inserted her world right into this tv-series, only she added magic and changed characters' roles: Cillian Murphy's character became a girl in the book and his love interest Grace became a man. That's it. I haven't read Night circus but I won't be surprised if some of the events of the book are identical (with little change) to this book's events.

Bottom line: I inclined to advice not to read this book, because I don't think it has anything to surprise or enchant you with, reader. It wasn't bad nor was it good and you can spend you time on something more engaging.

Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,878 reviews22.6k followers
November 28, 2016
Magical fantasy meets Prohibition, Roaring Twenties-era gangsters and bootlegging schemes. The basic concept is a cool one: magic, not alcohol, has been outlawed, specifically because sorcerers have the ability to create a magical, addictive brew called moonshine, which literally shines with a ruby glow and has an unbelievable kick. Luckily for the forces of law, shine, like all magic, only lasts 24 hours--but the shine-running gangs are trying to figure out a way to overcome that limitation.

It's a great concept, but the world-building gets shortchanged somewhat as the story focuses on a star-crossed love affair between Joan, a sorcerer in the control of mobsters, and Alex, another sorcerer who's trying to infiltrate the same mob as an undercover cop.

Full review to come.
Profile Image for Katerina  Kondrenko.
498 reviews825 followers
December 31, 2020
4.5 out of 10

Ревью в моем блоге/This review on my blog
Living A Thousand Lives
(please use Chrome/Yandex browser or Android/IOS to see the page; otherwise, spoiler-tags I use to make my post compact may not work)

Funk Off – Magic Touch
Caro Emerald – The Wonderful In You
Mits Jazz Band – Magic Mirror

Genre: magic-realism, historical-fantasy, YA
Stuff: illegal magic, Roaring Twenties
Fail: boring story
WOW: the ending
POV: 3rd-person, she/he
Love-Geometry: zero with seeming elements

"Run until you win, or until you fall."

Buddy-read with Nastassja and Vera. Check their reviews and see that I'm not alone with my annoyance.

Sometimes we live in a fool's paradise. Yes, this man is an asshole, but with me, he would change. Yes, this dress is awful for you, but it would suit me well. Yes, this book is known for a so-so read, but I'd fall for it, sure as hell. Uh-huh...

This book has everything to win a reader's heart: Roaring Twenties, illegal magic, characters with flaws, antiheroes instead of villains; but no spark, no suspense, no spice. You admit to yourself that the story is kinda unique among YA-genre, that its stuff is well-thought-out and logic's at home, but you're bored and not caring. How's that possible? Good question.

We have a world in which some people have the magic touch, they can do extraordinary things, make spells and create an addictive drink aka 'shine'. The government forbids sorcery, so if you are one of these powerful persons, you'd better keep a low profile. Of course, there are secret rooms where commoners can see some tricks and buy a short of shine. Some belong to particular families while some are under gangsters' control.

Our MCs, Joan and Alex, are special, but their lives aren't easy. Alex's father was using his son's power for making contraband magic-drugs and now he's in prison. Joan's mother is dead and that wasn't an accident. Moreover, she has a druggy bastard of an uncle and has to take care of younger siblings. The boy works for Feds hoping to clear his family's name. The girl is a barmaid who's gonna lose her house. One day both of them would receive an offer, the offer they wouldn't decline. Thus Alex will become a cop undercover among dangerous gangsters The Shaws, while Joan will become a performer at one of the Shaws' rooms, but first, she would have to survive sorcerer's Hunger Games (no kidding).

Sounds interesting? Well, maybe. If I retell you the whole plot you would consider this book as an intense read with awesome twists, but you should know that between these twists there are million dull moments. This story might be great, but the way it was told... screwed its potential. You know that feeling when something's off but you can't grasp what exactly is bothering you? During this read I was wondering and wondering, why I'm not invested in the story, why I wanna all the characters dead, why they refuse to be dead, why, why...

I felt Roaring Twenties' presence but in a very narrow way. All we see is a gangsters' life, their deals, their fights, their attitude. Turned out, I don't give a fuck about this kind of stuff. But in every Alex's chapter, we have to participate in it. When it comes to Joan, we see only walls. She never leaves the building in which she works. You may expect more magic, but nuh... Usually, we hear how she and her troupe are preparing for the show and when she hear how the show is already over. Nice, 'cause I never wanted to see it. I was always in need of more information about rehearsal. It's way better than magic itself. Sarcasm block is over! And you know what? Maybe rehearsal is really a better thing to read about, 'cause local magic is freaking boring. You will see a few tricks, after all, people in the book would tell you it's fucking amazing, but I'm sure you wouldn't agree with them. When someone writes about sorcery she or he may use even purple prose to make their descriptions vivid, to make readers feel. But Lee Kelley wrote about tricks in a matter-of-fact narration. And the tricks themselves were nothing special at all.

Now to my other issue which is romance. The author tells you Alex and Joan are things, but they're not. There are some beautiful scenes between them, but the characters lack chemistry and I had no emotions about them. Better development might help. Or not... Since I didn't like MCs. At first, Alex seemed sexy and dark and then he became a puppy. Joan seemed a shy and kinda submissive girl and turned out being a fucking the best of the best with maniacal intentions. There is another person, Mr. Gunn. He had never acted out of his character, he was creepy and scary and cunning. No wonder, I liked him. Not as a love-interest or a hero I would team up with, but as an intriguing man. He was kinda involved in a romance between MCs, but not in a traditional way. You'll see if you'd pick up a book (don't do this, you don't wanna do this, xD). And to be honest, Joan's romance with Gunn may be way sexier than the one she had with Alex.
“My fate is tied to this man’s fate. The fate of this sadistic, scheming enigma of a gangster.”

Isn't it sexy? The more I think about this book, the more I enjoy Gunn and the more I despise other characters. Sorry, not sorry.

The ending a little redeemed the story. It was action-packed, dark, and bitter-sweet (where the 'sweet'-part wasn't necessary at all). It was an open final, but I wish A Criminal Magic wouldn't have any sequels, 'cause this cake needs to be re-backed before someone decides to put some icing on it.

PS: I have a question. If sorceresses are so kick-ass creatures why gangsters without magic touch rule them and not vice versa?
Profile Image for Yaprak.
Author 23 books123 followers
December 12, 2018
Geçmişe yolculuk yapacaksınız; bu sefer 1920'lere. Yazarımız Lee Kelly o dönemde uygulamaya geçen içki yasaklarından ilham almış ve bu kanun sihir karşıtı bir kanuna çevirerek tarihi bir fantastik eser ortaya çıkarmış.

Kitap bize iki büyücünün ağzından anlatılıyor: Joan ve Alex.

Joan küçücük bir kasabada yaşayan ve geçmişte yaptığı bir hatanın bedelini ödemek adına kız kardeşini ve kuzenini mutlu etmek ve geçindirmek görevini üstlenmiş, fakat elinde bunu yapabilecek bir güçü yok. Ta ki DC'den bir mafya babası gelip karşısına bir fırsat çıkarana kadar...

Alex ise DC'de yaşıyor. Babasıyla beraber yeraltı dünyasında yürüttükleri dolaplar babasının hapse girmesiyle sonuçlanınca kendi başını beladan korumak adına Yasak Birim'inde eğitime başlamış ama asıl yapmak istediği şey bu değil...

Yeraltı dünyası, gangsterler ve karanlık sırlarla örülü bir aşk hikâyesi sizleri bekliyor. Cadı Avcısı severler, bu kitap kaçmaz!
Profile Image for Allison.
489 reviews186 followers
November 18, 2015
Thank you to Saga Press and Simon & Schuster for the ARC! ^_^

Ok, so this book is: if Martin Scorsese adapted THE NIGHT CIRCUS and set it in an alternate-1920s America where magic has been outlawed. GANGSTERS. MAGIC DRUGS. MAGICAL SPEAKEASIES. UNDERCOVER GOVERNMENT AGENTS. ROGUE SORCERERS. DOUBLE CROSSING. TRIPLE CROSSING.

First of all, I LOVED READING ABOUT THE MECHANICS OF THE MAGIC. I found myself re-reading most of the explanations of spells and rituals and whispering "WOW" a lot. The magic system (AND IT'S ACTUALLY A //SYSTEM//) Kelly devised is extremely broad (blood magic, elemental spells, mind-reading, etc) but everything MAKES PERFECT SENSE. I kinda wish Lee Kelly had written The Magicians instead of Lev Grossman?????????????????? CAN YOU IMAGINE??? I CAN IMAGINE.

The narrative is told through two alternating points of view, Joan (great & ballsy) and Alex (great & dreamy). Their conflicting goals and motivations made for some harrowing reading (especially since they're also falling for each other), and the last fifth of the book gave me reader's whiplash.

Anyways, fabulous. I'd been looking forward to this book since I first saw it listed on here and I WASN'T DISAPPOINTED.

Profile Image for Vira.
129 reviews92 followers
March 18, 2016
It's been almost 24 hours since I read the book and there's still a bad aftertaste torturing my read-sensible receptors. What a disappointment, ladies and gentlemen!

I never really wanted anything grand from this book - just mix some high-quality criminal with a generous amount of magic and I'll be fine. And I've got to tell you, the first sip was rather intriguing - freshly made sorceress, discovering her true powers in a magic competition combined with the handsome young man, also touched with magic, working for both Prohibition Unit and vicious gang boss.

But unfortunately that was nothing more than a promise - a well-written and potentially so rich with possibilities, but still a promise.

Too vague? Let me show you.

This is what I wanted to see in A Criminal Magic:

Razzle-dazzle of Prohibition era
Real badass gangsters
Chemistry between two charismatic main characters

And this is what I got:

More smoking
Main characters, insta-loving each other and acting all weird and unexplainable
Some more smoking
Stoned gangsters
Confused gangsters
Dead gangsters
And a bottle of magic, literally

So...sorry, but this was not my shot of shine.

For a less graphical and more detailed review please check my buddy read gangster girls, who wanted to "kill 'em all" - Nastassja and Katerina.

Profile Image for Emma.
2,385 reviews810 followers
November 19, 2016
Just below 4 stars. I really enjoyed this magical take on gangsters and Prohibition. Very good magical alternative history and worth reading for that alone. The main characters were interesting because I started off thinking Joan had a good moral compass while Alex was lost. And in the end it was the other way round. I'm glad the romance worked out the way it did...It would have felt out of keeping with the noir style otherwise..
Fancy something different in magical worlds? This might be it... recommended.
Profile Image for Tammy.
800 reviews134 followers
February 2, 2016

The nitty-gritty: A gritty and magical story with plenty of danger, romance and a very special drink called sorcerer's shine.

Magic can achieve a lot of things, but it can't undo the past. I've sworn off sorcery, buried my magic with earth, blood, and tears below the ground, but I'd gladly sell my soul to use it just once more, if sorcery could find a way to bring me back in time. If it could bring me right to the edge of where I once stood and shattered my world into tiny shards, and make me walk away instead.

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 by 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 “sorcerer's 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 know A Criminal Magic isn't the beginning of 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.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the finally version of the book.

This review first appeared on The Speculative Herald.This review originally appeared on Books, Bones & Buffy

Profile Image for Whitley Birks.
294 reviews355 followers
January 19, 2016
See more reviews on my blog.

I had so much fun with this book. The premise was something you just can't go wrong with (Prohibition era outlawing addictive magic instead of alcohol? YES PLEASE) and then on top of that we got some extremely engaging characters, solid worldbuilding, and a plot that just won't stop.

There is nothing about this book that I wouldn't recommend, though I will throw out one caveat: this isn't a YA book. I have no idea why it was ever billed as a YA book. This is I thought New Adult was going to be, before contemporary took over the genre and publishers somehow forgot that college kids like fantasy adventures, too. Not only are the primary characters in that 18-22 age group, but some of the major themes are about striking out in the world and making your mark in your first job and making compromises between morals and surviving and finding out that all bosses are soul-sucking devils. (Plus there's all that smoking and drinking and drug taking that's going on.)

Back to the fangirling glee. Like I said, every part of this book appealed to me. It follows two primary characters, Joan and Alex, as they navigate the dark, illegal world of gangs and magical speakeasies. Both of these characters have shaky pasts and dark sides, and though they get mixed up with gangs for mostly good reasons, they wind up doing some fairly heinous things. I loved watching them struggle to reconcile the terrible things they do with their good intentions, watching them rationalize and compromise and build an increasingly-unsteady house of cards until the whole thing just implodes. A+ flawed character arcs for both of them, and it was glorious.

There's really not much I can say about the worldbuilding and plot that isn't just "it's X, and isn't X so cool?" which is why 5-star reviews are so hard for me. I want you to discover it yourself! Everything about the world hangs together so well, it's gritty and beautiful at the same time. But yes, gangs and guns and magic speakeasies and stage magic and undercover cops and plots and machinations and murder and sex and what more could you want? If any of those things appeal to you, you need this book!
January 3, 2016
This is magic for grownups. I love the world Kelly created an her writing style made it easy to imagine actually being a part of this glamorous underworld. This book has it all, action, great characters, an interesting and unique magical system and a near-perfect ending.

The story is told from duel perspectives of Joan, who travels to DC in hopes of becoming part of an elite, yet still illegal, magical troupe and Alex, a law enforcement agent who has his own personal grudge to bear with the criminal underworld and all its lackeys. Both Joan and Alex walk a very thin rope between making morally sound decisions and getting caught up in the magical world which encompasses them. Kelly did a wonderful job of showing how Joan, a tremendously likable character, walks a fine line between doing the right thing and becoming engulfed in a highly glamorous and profitable world of magic. It is also especially interesting that in this life, magic can be used to produce a highly addictive after-product called "Shine" which takes over one's mind and produces a high unrivaled by anything else on the street.

I can't recommend enough that you pick up this book and become lost in its world. I believe it is a stand-alone novel, and that ending! I totally felt it could have ended one way and I would have been so pleased with the outcome, but then Kelly throws in so many twists in the last 50 or so pages of the book that I actually am happy to say she didn't take the expected way out. Preorder a copy now because even though I was provided a free galley from Booksparks and the publisher in exchange for an honest review, I HAVE to have my own copy sitting on my shelves! I am also grabbing a copy of her first book, City of Savages, the first chance I get.
Profile Image for Karen.
493 reviews95 followers
March 31, 2021

This is adult fantasy. A CRIMINAL MAGIC is such a fun story full of magic and danger. This story follows Joan and Alex in a world where magic is illegal. Whenever a sorcerer performs magic, that magic can be placed into water and it turns into Shine. Shine is a very addictive drug. Since magic is all but illegal, families keep their magic to themselves. Joan is part of a family in trouble. An accident took her mother and left her and her cousin running a front for her Shine addicted sorcerer uncle. Right when they stand to loose everything, a stranger appears and offers them hope if Joan is willing to work for him. At the same time, Alex is helping his father run some illegal Shine as well. Alex gets busted by the law and agrees to start collecting information for them. Alex and Joan end up in the same place working for opposite sides of the same dangerous game.

I loved this story. The rules are clearly laid out. Magic only lasts for a day. Shine is only good for a day as well. This world is set in the 1920s and instead of alcohol prohibition, magic is banned. In this age magic is separated into classes. Some sorcerers can read minds, some can create illusions, some can control people, and so on. It is all well described and easy to imagine. Not everyone has magic and even in families, it is hard to tell who might have the gift. In this era, magic is as much a curse as it is a gift.

Joan ends up in a life and death match to earn a spot among her sorcerer peers. Joan is carrying a big secret about her family. I loved that she is motivated and haunted by them. She is tough and powerful, which is a great combination.

“Long ago there was a sorcerer who walked to hell for her family, and in the pits of hell, the devil saw her remorse and let her walk back.”

Alex has had a lot of bad luck. He does what he does because it is the right thing, and because he has no other options. He actually hates what he has to do, but he is a man of his word.

“My fate is tied to this man’s fate. The fate of this sadistic, scheming enigma of a gangster.”

I loved almost everything about this story. The era is perfect for this story. The magic is pretty fantastic and the rules for that magic are clearly defined for the reader. This story is told in both Joan and Alex’s POV. I have to admit I was much more interested in Joan’s story, but that changed after about the 50% mark and then I couldn’t choose which one to like more.

One thing I should mention is that the ending kinda threw me. It is was a very mature ending, but I wasn’t prepared for it. At all. I was so looking forward to reading this story and I happy to say it did not disappoint. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of fantasy adult fiction.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 2 books51 followers
July 6, 2016
Actual Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mobsters, smugglers, and enchanted elixirs as potent as drugs - this is the wild, hypnotic world of Lee Kelly's A Criminal Magic. Set in an alternate Prohibition era where magic is banned instead of alcohol, this edge-of-your-seat thriller thrusts two budding sorcerers into Washington, D.C.'s criminal underworld. Joan Kendrick is hired by the Shaw Gang to perform at their "shining room" (think magical speakeasy) so she can provide for her family; while Alex Danfrey, son of a mob-offed businessman, is assigned by the feds to go undercover and dismantle the Shaws. Soon, Joan's and Alex's paths intersect, and their hearts and motivations become entangled. And when the mob questions their loyalties, they realize - perhaps too late - that there might be no way out.

From the moment I opened A Criminal Magic, this book grabbed my imagination and refused to let go. Kelly's unique spin on magic suits the rebellious spirit of the Roaring Twenties / Prohibition era perfectly, injecting more danger into an already dangerous setting. Her strong, cinematic writing certainly helped with this. It set my pulse pounding during fights and chase scenes, and made the illusions and spells gorgeously vivid. (The latter often reminded me of the breathtaking magic in Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.) This also translated into the narrative voices for both POV characters, which Kelly nailed. She puts you in their shoes, minds, and hearts; and this helped me connect with Joan and Alex and further stoked my worry for them as the stakes kept rising.

Any critiques I have for A Criminal Magic are nitpicky. The use of first-person present tense took some getting used to (it doesn't fit historical novels, IMO) and made for some jarring chapter openings. I also would have liked a stronger dose of the Roaring Twenties vibe. Mentions of jazz music and flapper girls would have made an already intriguing setting even more vibrant. Neither issue spoiled the ride that this book took me on, though - and was it a wild ride, especially with its punch-in-the-gut climax! I wouldn't be surprised if A Criminal Magic sits near the top of my year-end list for 2016 reads. It's suspenseful, entertaining, and utterly absorbing.
Profile Image for Sajda.
308 reviews230 followers
January 25, 2016
Holy hell...this was amazing! My mind is still trying to recover from this book's brilliance. Everything was perfect: the characters, magic, levels of betrayal. So so good! I demand an epilogue

Full review to come
Profile Image for Valerie.
393 reviews169 followers
February 20, 2016
Holy shit

I don't know what I just read, my heart's still racing because of how intense this was. Sure magic is powerful and dangerous, but you know what else is? THIS BOOK. For my HEART.

Joan and Alex are on the opposite sides of the field, in a way that Joan is convinced that her magic is being used for a good thing (like getting high!), while Alex is posing as a double agent in order to stop people like his father, who distributed the drugs and profited from it. Both lead incredibly dangerous lives, with Alex risking his life every time he reports back to the Feds, and Joan risking hers by demonstrating sacrificial magic no one knows about except her family to a gangster boss. So when I say that A Criminal Magic has hell of a dangerous plot, I am not lying.

Right from the beginning, you are sucked into Joan's world. She's fending for herself and her family, but with her uncle constantly high on his own sorcerer's shine, it seems like she'll never be pay off any of their debts. Until enter in Mr. Gunn, gangster boss gathering sorcerer's for some special performances, and off she goes. And then Alex is in a similar situation except he's been in deep waters with the Feds ever since his father got caught distributing drugs. So he has to make a deal, go undercover, discover what all these gangsters are planning, and report it. And off he goes!

It wasn't only the plot that made this novel such a fantastic read for me, but both Joan and Alex had such great characterizations, and the fact that their history drove most of their actions made them feel like real, and solid. And their magic. Their magic complemented each other so well, in this way it reminded me so much of The Night Circus. The marketing pitch was not wrong in that way.

But there were so many criminals. Magic is being shipped off as drugs as a way to get high or wasted. And it was just fascinating to read about such a thing, especially since all of this takes place in the 1920s. And although there were many parties, most took place in bars and such where sorcerer's shine was brewed. I almost wanted their to be a Gatsby party with these kinds of drugs. That would have been chaotic!

Maybe my one complaint is that both Alex and Joan were near perfect in every way, but honestly, it didn't bother me as much. It helped that there were more bigger and dangerous things going on in the background.

I loved A Criminal Magic, though I am still confused as to what this is marketed as. I want to assume it is YA but it seems as it is Adult fantasy? I'm not sure and will have to look it up somewhere other than Goodreads. But again, this was a fantastic novel. Definitely great for fans of The Night Circus, and maybe even A Darker Shade of Magic.

I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.
Profile Image for Laura.
2,611 reviews79 followers
February 14, 2016
This is an interesting alternative history. What would have happened if instead of alcohol being prohibited by the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, instead it is the drink called "Shine" which is the residue produced by sorcerers when they do magic. The liquid is hallucinogenic and addictive, but the drink has to be made locally as it only lasts a day.

And of course, like Prohibition, in the US, the Mafia is involved in getting shine to those that still want to drink and enjoy it, despite it being against the law. The story is set in Washington DC, which is interesting because in real life, the Mafia was never able to penetrate it.

The story kept me engaged. I never knew, despite there being two voices throughout, who would survive and who would not. The dialogue didn't quite feel natural, and the attempt at trying to speak as a 1920s person would felt forced at times.

The story follows Alex, who is an undercover agent, and Joan, who is using magic for the mob. Each other chapter is told from their points of view.

So, why only three stars? Well, it was a good concept, and kept me engaged, but after I finished reading it, I felt like, so that was it? That was what I was reading it for? So, three stars for keeping me engaged, and making me want to know what would happen next. And three stars for coming up with the concept. And three stars for not having insta-love, though it could have been a little slower.

And...well...that is about it. It felt a little cliched.

As I mentioned in my updates, there are no people of color in this story. Why do I bring this up? Because Washington DC is predominately Black. I'm not quite sure they there are none, in this story, but ok.

This book was provided by Goodreads and the publisher for an honest review.
Profile Image for Suzan.
546 reviews
June 19, 2019
Güzeldi ama birşeyler eksikti işte 🤔
Profile Image for Hafsah Faizal.
Author 8 books7,272 followers
January 29, 2016
4.5 stars.

Terribly good. Painful. Beautiful. WILD.

Review coming soon.
Profile Image for Glory.
350 reviews48 followers
February 11, 2016
THE NIGHT CIRCUS meets THE PEAKY BLINDERS in Lee Kelly's new magical realism, crossover novel.

Ну да, ну да, я всегда кривлюсь, когда вижу подобные сравнения. И неизбежно на них покупаюсь))
Ревущие двадцатые и магия? Уличные банды и шоу?
Ваня, я ваша навеки (с)

Но навеки не получилось.
Нет, в целом история неплохая. У нас есть альтернативный мир, в котором магия вне закона. И есть два рассказчика - Джоан и Алекс. Чародейка Джоан в силу жизненных обстоятельств вынуждена пойти работать на криминальный синдикат. Сын преступника Алекс, мечтая очистить имя семьи, внедряется туда же под прикрытием.
И понеслась.

Вот только обещанных 20-х до обидного мало. Не хватило мне атмосферы. Как-то все поверхностно, легкими и неубедительными штрихами. С тем же успехом это могло быть любое время и место.
Далее: магия. Она есть, но... без изюминки. Собранные в кучу штампы и стереотипы. Пресно.
Повествование поочередно от лица мальчика и от лица девочки. Просто не люблю. Сочетание первого и третьего лица еще принимаю, а несколько первых... Мало кому из авторов удается разграничить голоса.
Ну и любовь-морковь. Быстро, чуть наигранно, без развития.

Из плюсов:
- Герои. Насколько меня не впечатлил их лямур, настолько же понравились сами персонажи. Со всеми их достоинствами и недостатками. Они взрослеют и совершают ошибки, но при этом не раздражают.
- Отсутствие черно-белых тонов. И наглядная демонстрация того, куда приводят благие намерения.
- Как ни парадоксально, магия. Да, выше я жаловалась на штампованность, но тем не менее автор весьма детально все проработала. Система вопросов не вызывает.
- Концовка. Роман заявлен как несерийный, и надеюсь такой открытый финал - не лазейка, оставленная автором на случай, если приспичит разродиться серией.

В общем, хорошо, но могло быть лучше. Хотя отзывы в большинстве своем очень и очень положительные, потому вполне вероятно, что я просто придираюсь)
Profile Image for nick (the infinite limits of love).
2,119 reviews1,326 followers
April 11, 2016

This is one of the most underrated/under promoted books of the year. Seriously, if you’re a fan of historical books with a little bit of fantasy, I can’t recommend A Criminal Magic enough. From the very first page, this was a book that entirely enthralled me and that feeling of being hooked never dissolved. How could it not? It’s got illegal sorcery, clubs, mobsters and crime – a fabulous combo, in my opinion! Joan, one of the two protagonists of this book, is a young sorcerer is offered a job by a DC crime lord in exchange for a lot of money which could help her family. Joan, was a great character, in my opinion, one who was selfless, brave and did everything for her family’s safety and happiness. There were moments in the book, I was genuinely worried that she was spiraling into darkness when it came to her magic, but she was able to repeatedly fend for herself like a boss. Alex, the male protagonist, whose POV we also get, has to go undercover in the same club Joan finds herself in to infiltrate Joan’s boss’ gang. Both these characters were very similar in their journey and when they came together, their chemistry and connection were undeniable. You root for them and hope that they’ll make it out alive together. While the characters themselves were great, it was the feel of A Criminal Magic that was the highlight of the book for me – it was rather addicting and Lee Kelly did a fantastic job with the descriptions of the atmosphere and building her world. I don’t know if this is part of a series, but the ending left me desiring more in this world. I, for one, hope that a sequel is in the works because I’m ready to spend more time in this fascinating world.
Profile Image for Olivia-Savannah .
643 reviews453 followers
November 4, 2016
A Criminal Magic was a novel I wanted to read after everything I had heard about it. There were so many positive reviews and it sounded so promising. The novel did not disappoint in the slightest. I was immersed in this book from the beginning to the end.

What initially captivated me was the voice of the main characters. This novel is told from two alternating points of view – that of Alex and also Joan’s too. The best thing about both these characters was their development. I feel like we really follow them on their journey to becoming better – or maybe even worse – people than they started out as being. They have their reasons for everything they do, and as readers we get to see this through the gradual explanation of their backstory. They sounded so real to me, it was almost as if they could jump out of the page and join me in reality. I loved Alex and his charming determination in everything he did. I loved Joan for the way that she cared for her family like crazy.

The world building was done incredibly well, especially when it came to the boundaries and limitations of magic. Everything made complete sense to me, and I loved that magic was something which was temporary. And even though I have read books where magic is criminal before, the addition of ‘shine’ and how it can be used as a drug was something entirely original to this novel. It added a whole lot of depth and well, seeing as the main plot revolved around this it was incredibly relevant. I just loved the daring, dark side to magic that was depicted here.

The secondary characters were well done, and they all had their own roles to play. I feel like the secondary characters were given a lot more focus in the beginning of the novel, and the first half. We got to see their personalities shine, and a bit of their lives as well. But that was one thing I would have wanted to see a little more, especially in the latter part of the book. Then the focus really shifted to our protagonists and they faded into the background, only taking to the stage when it came to be of importance to the plot.

Now let’s talk about the plot… it was so good! Gradually you saw how Joan and Alex’s stories became entwined… There was so much going on (well, this is the criminal side of things, so of course there was.) There was a whole lot of betrayal and a whole load of plot twists I didn’t see coming. Even when I thought that everything was set and a done deal, the author put another spin on things that shocked me once again. The plot was incredibly clever, well written, and took me on a brilliant rollercoaster ride. If you’re a plot driven reader, you’ll appreciation the suspense and tension of this novel!

The ending really got to me. As it was happening I was so involved, and could see things unfolding that made me want to cry out to the characters to do things differently. The reader ends up knowing more than the characters themselves do and well… the ending just broke my heart. The author played me perfectly, just the way they wanted to.

The romance was okay. It was there, but it never took the forefront of the story or was particularly wowing. It was necessary for the plot to work, and it was a nice enough touch.

A very, very spell-binding book. I was hooked from start to finish.

Gif Summary:
This review and others can be found on Olivia's Catastrophe: http://olivia-savannah.blogspot.nl/20...
Profile Image for Athena.
240 reviews40 followers
March 23, 2016
Finally got this from the library and dove into a world where the Volstead Act, which created Prohibition, bans magic instead of intoxicants. The setting seems to be trying for a real 1920's into which magic is inserted which would've been nice, had it worked. Unfortunately it just didn't, neither as a fantasy nor an historical novel.

The author isn't able to convey a real sense of the 1920s; there's a little bit of 1920's slang tossed in along with far more slang from decades later which jarred me out of the story every single time I read it. "Ms."? Really? That was a hard enough sell in the 1970s as I vividly remember because I was there, fighting that fight. In the 1920s using "Ms." instead of "Miss" is just silly, and as much an editorial mistake as the author's. She also has women wearing pants in public in 1926 (no) and a "four lane highway" makes an appearance, apparently just to describe where a car is going but the anachronism took me out of the story yet again. Every few pages in the first half of the book there are anachronisms in language or setting that made the whole concept of the book very hard to swallow: there is no context given for why 'Ms.' or large highways or any of the other anachronisms would have been moved forward in time, they're just rather unbelievably there.

On the fantasy side, the magic of the story has minimal internal structure or physics. 'Sorcerers' can create tangible and even dangerous illusions which don't last more than 24 hours but can affect people and which, when released, dissolve into a dust that fades away. Any people who might be killed by this also just blink out of existence (um, where do they go?). Sorcerers enchant water into 'Shine' which when drunk will cause the drinker to achieve a magical high: yet when some characters want to get rid of the Shine they've just made they dump it on the floor. So it's somehow different than any other sorcerous creation? They can disenchant one thing but not another? Then a while later someone magically moves a corpse under the soil, leaving the ground undisturbed … won't that body just pop up again 24 hours later? Huh?

Physics is a bitch that believable fantasy tames: she's running around loose & barking here because this is singularly unbelievable fantasy.

The plot which revolves around all this is a 'Love At First Sight Between Nice But Imperiled People' that never gets much momentum. I really didn't care about the main characters even though we bounce back and forth between each, in the first person, from chapter to chapter. I was annoyed enough by the anachronisms and bored enough by the plot that I decided to devote the rest of my reading day to something productive.

Criminal Magic was spun from an interesting idea but it never made that final step into an interesting book.
Profile Image for Fantasy Literature.
3,226 reviews159 followers
February 6, 2016
In A Criminal Magic, Lee Kelly creates a world in which the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned sorcery rather than alcohol. Kelly combines remarkable creativity, imagination, and insight into the human condition, blending fantasy with history and ending up with a complex, entertaining, compelling novel.

Naturally, the passage of A Criminal Magic’s fictional amendment results in the same response as its historical analogue: sorcerers are thrust into the criminal underworld, brewing an illegal ruby-red elixir. This “shine,” as it’s known, is smuggled by gangsters into “shining rooms” across the country, fronted by legal liquor bars and raided by members of the Federal Prohibition Unit who can’t be bribed into looking the other way. Drinking shine gives reality a surreal glow, causes a wide ran... Read More: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/revi...
Profile Image for Lori Goldstein.
Author 6 books430 followers
June 16, 2016
As in her first book, City of Savages, Lee Kelly's prose shines. A Criminal Magic is an alternate 1920s world where instead of alcohol being banned, magic is. Vivid description of the world and the magical spells make this book a must for those who love all things fantastical and yet the gangsters and the underworld make it appeal to those who love a good mystery/detective story. With a slow build of a love story between the two main characters, fans of a touch of romance in their books will also be satisfied. Basically there is no one who won't love this book!
Profile Image for colleen the convivial curmudgeon.
1,155 reviews285 followers
November 26, 2016

Just finished this. I liked it, but didn't love it. Gave it 3.5 stars, downgraded to 3.

The first issue I noticed was that while the chapters switch between Alex and Joan's perspectives, the voices were too similar. This issue had started to go away as the story progressed, but then when they started to be in the same place it became an issue again. I would be reading a chapter and literally forget which "I" was speaking from time to time. (Would've been better in third person, maybe, as then it wouldn't matter that the author could only write in one voice.)

The magic was interesting, but also somewhat confusing. There are different types of magic, and the rules don't always seen entirely clear about what's allowed and what isn't. It definitely had a sort of "whatever is convenient for the plot" kind of thing going on - so people who are more particular about wanting their magic really codified (in a "hard fantasy" sort of way) will find it annoying.

That said, the story, overall, was pretty decent. I liked the main characters and the fact that the author dealt well with the various shades of grey portrayed in the story. (Parts of the angst were a bit repetitive, but the book is short and quick enough that it never felt overly bogged down.)

I wish some of the secondary characters were fleshed out more, though. A lot of the time they felt more like window dressing than actual characters.

And, speaking of window dressing, I didn't get too strong of a 20s vibe from the writing, which was somewhat disappointing. I like my historical fictions - even AU ones - to have a real sense of the time and place they're meant to take place in. This one kind of felt like it could've been modern times, aside from a few references to, like, types of cars or modes of dress or something...

Anyway -

The story started off well and had me interested from the beginning, but slowed down a bit in the middle, as these things sometimes do.

The last 1/3 or 1/4 of the book starts getting really good, though, and had me turning pages much more than the earlier parts of the book. It was exciting and I was curious to see how things would turn out.

That said, I found the climax a bit too quick and easy for all the build up.

The denouement was good - fitting for the story, even though I would've

I don't know if these is a standalone or meant to be the beginning of a series. It works as a standalone - but I'd also be curious to see what happens with how things were left.

( *Just read that the author says this is "currently" a standalone, which means I guess it's somewhat possible it could continue... but it does have a satisfying enough conclusion if it doesn't. Though I'd kind of like an epilogue to sort of see how things stand in the future... maybe not 19 years later, but at least a few.) ;)

*** ETA: I just noticed that several reviews refer to this as a The Night Circus meets X thing... and, yeah, I am so glad I did not have that expectation going in because I really liked the Night Circus, and this doesn't have remotely the same feel to me. (I'm guessing the comparison is based on the magical performance aspect... in which case some of the magic in this book actually reminded me much more of Glamour a la the Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal.

But not Night Circus. This book, no pun intended, lacks the magic of the Night Circus, and I feel like comparing this to Night Circus will lead you to nought but disappointment.
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