Mogsy (MMOGC)'s Reviews > A Criminal Magic

A Criminal Magic by Lee   Kelly
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really liked it
bookshelves: arcs-and-galleys, review-copy, fantasy, historical-fiction, magic, alternate-history

4 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum

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!
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Reading Progress

July 29, 2015 – Shelved
July 29, 2015 – Shelved as: not-yet-released
December 2, 2015 – Shelved as: to-be-reviewed
December 2, 2015 – Shelved as: arcs-and-galleys
December 2, 2015 – Shelved as: review-copy
January 19, 2016 – Started Reading
January 22, 2016 –
page 180
January 24, 2016 – Shelved as: fantasy
January 24, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
January 24, 2016 – Shelved as: magic
January 24, 2016 – Shelved as: alternate-history
January 24, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Stefan (new) - added it

Stefan Fergus This looks pretty interesting.

Mogsy (MMOGC) It was good! Just some minor complaints, but on the whole a great read.

message 3: by Lyn (new)

Lyn sounds cool, good review

message 4: by Patremagne (new) - added it

Patremagne Nice review, definitely gonna look into this one. I'm pretty confused why so many people are marking it as YA though.

Mogsy (MMOGC) Probably because the characters are late teens/thereabouts, and I can see there being some good crossover appeal. I think the author's first novel was YA (not sure about that personally, though it was marked YA by a lot of folks as well) and maybe that impression just carried over?

message 6: by Patremagne (new) - added it

Patremagne Probably the same deal as Victoria Schwab's new stuff. Labels stick to the authors, I guess!

Mogsy (MMOGC) Exactly, and Schwab was actually the example of this that came into my own head as I was typing my last message! :)

Idris I had the exact same loves and reservations about this story!

message 9: by Donald (new) - added it

Donald Crafton Very well done review, my thoughts exactly it was a comparison transfer from alcohol to shine. Well said I loved the book and went fast.

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