When I picked up Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley, I expected a fairly tried and true fantasy/mystery thriller based on the back of the book. What I got instead was a mix of horror, profanity, existential crises, and a tried and true fantasy/mystery thriller. The book is profound in that it manages to both be trope-y and wildly creative in the same book, but often not at the same time. I realize that is hard to understand without context, so let’s dig into what Gutter Mage has to offer.
The world of Gutter Mage is set in a kingdom where magic fuels everything to the point of feeling a little like a capitalist dystopia where the capital is magic. The mage guilds wield enormous power and snuff out any independent competition. But, when Lord Edmund’s infant son is kidnapped and he wants to keep it on the down-low, he turns to the one independent who is known as being mildly competent: Rosalind Featherstone, a.k.a. the Gutter Mage. Fueled by a desire for one last score to help her partner retire, Roz accepts the job, despite its shady feel, and rapidly realizes that things are even more messed up than she suspected. Thus kicks off a carnival ride of unpleasant twists and turns in a mystery that kept me invested from start to finish.
This book is the Roz show, no if and or buts about it. The plot has some interesting twists and a refreshing horror angle that makes it stand out, but Gutter Mage mostly feels similar to every other fantasy cop story I have read recently – at least from a plot angle. Roz, on the other hand, is the real sell of the book and brings tons of originality to the story. We stay in the mind of Roz the entire time, and she certainly isn’t boring. She curses a little too much to the point where it felt like one of her defining character traits. She has an extreme penchant for violence, and she seems to think really highly of her magical abilities when they really just boil down to either “set something on fire” or “set everything on fire.” Yet, her violent and loud exterior matches the pacing and tone of the mystery and does well to add to the ambiance and pacing of the narrative. On top of this, she has an absolutely profound moment of introspection that changes the entire subcontext of Gutter Mage to the point where I set it down and began to think about the entire story in a new light.
I won’t spoil what the introspection was, but essentially Roz learns something about herself that results in some truly fascinating internal questions that I haven’t seen fantasy novels play with much. It breathes enormous life into the book as all of the typical tropes for fantasy cops gain new terrible perspectives and it helps continue to put a horror zest to the entire affair. Before this big internal question, I was enjoying the read but wasn’t overly engaged in the plot. After the reveal, I was riveted.
Gutter Mage is an existential crisis wrapped in a noir detective story. It has a lot more depth than it initially seems while also being exactly as fast, fun, and punchy as it advertises. It is a quick read and one of the better in-class detective fantasy stories I have recently read. I recommend you check it out if anything I talked about above even mildly sparked your interest.
Rating: Gutter Mage – 7.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.