I have been reading a lot of urban fantasy lately, more by an artifact of my review schedule than by conscious effort. My high-level takeaway from this experience has been that I don’t actually like urban fantasy. I often find their worlds surprisingly shallow, their themes uninteresting, and their characters somehow less relatable than those of classic fantasy or modern fiction. I am fully willing to accept that this is more of an issue with me than an entire genre, but it feels worth noting when something comes along that speaks to me despite my disposition. In the giant piles of urban magic I read these past few months, I found one duology I thoroughly enjoyed. With the right balance of charm and horror, a focus on aristocratic New York magic families, and an examination of the nature of human selfishness and laziness – these books captivated my interest where others failed. The pair of books form The Unseen World duology by Kat Howard, and consist of An Unkindness of Magicians and A Sleight of Shadows.
The plot of the two books is straightforward but exciting. We have a modern-day New York City with all its glitz and glamor with a touch of toxic magical elite thrown in. As usual for this sort of story, the magicians tend to exist beyond the comprehension of non-magic users, but only just barely. In fact, new magicians often find themselves stumbling into the magical world and immediately snapped up (in more ways than one) by existing houses. The exception to this is during times of turbulence in the houses where a giant ceremonial magical duel takes place, with each house vying for dominance. New spots open in the house network and newcomers seeking to establish new magical houses and dynasties must compete for one of the few spots. Simultaneously, existing houses that want a chance at leadership must put skin in the game for a chance to become the new head of the magical world. In both instances, a loss can mean horrific and brutal death because there is a dark rotting heart at the center of this magical society – The House of Shadows.
Both books in this duology are centered around the mysterious House of Shadows, a terrifying Pandora’s box that sits in the center of the reservoir in Central Park. Each of the magical families of New York is required to feed the least favored members of their houses to the meat grinder that is the house and in exchange they basically get free magic. Magic normally is extremely taxing to the body, and without enormous practice, basic spells are often more effort than they are worth. However, with a connection to the House of Shadows, all of your magic becomes effort-free. You just need to be ok with knowing your lazy selfish lifestyle comes at the cost of ground-up children. Spoilers, these wastrels are all fine with it. An Unkindness of Magicians first focuses on the dismantling of the disgusting House of Shadows, following numerous POVs with a vested interest in either pulling it apart or shoring it up. A Sleight of Shadows tells the story of the survivors of book one trying to build something more sustainable in The House of Shadows place.
There are a number of bright positives I enjoyed about Howard’s books. To start, the prose is quite good. Howard has a cinematic quality to her writing that is very transportive and served her very well in helping me imagine a modern New York entangled with magic. Howard also has a real talent for juxtaposing the beauty and wonder of magic with the brutal and grotesque dark sides of its cost. I greatly liked that the magic was basically a grey space, and how it was used determined the morality of the spells. The antagonists, the lazy greedy magicians fine with others paying the cost of their opulent lives, felt very fitting for the current sociopolitical landscape and never felt over the top. Each felt very easy to imagine as a very real and punchable face. I loved the tight focus on New York and a few of its members. There were no world-ending threats, just a few awful people doing horrible things that needed to be stopped. This more micro focus gave the books a grounded feeling and did a lot to draw me into the world.
Where things start to get messy is the characters. Generally, I am a big fan of a number of characters. Our lead is Sydney, a woman with an unpleasantly personal connection to The House of Shadows and we follow her quest to bring it down. I enjoyed her a lot as the main voice, but what became difficult is the other, overly numerous POVs. In a vacuum there was nothing wrong with any POV individually; each represents a different angle on the House of Shadows situation. The problem is that between them all the narrative starts to feel spread thin and begins to be a bit hard to follow. While I understood the thematic reasoning for some of the POV shifts, it started to really slow down the pacing, especially in book one.
Diving into the books individually, I do think I liked An Unkindness of Magicians slightly more. Book one felt packed to the brim with big magical set pieces, tightly intertwined mysteries, and characters with big personalities. The pacing could drag sometimes as I tried to sort out everything in my head, but it did a great job of filling my mind with excitement and whimsy. I loved its themes around the nature of the rich and the hidden costs they pass on to society. A Sleight of Shadows, on the other hand, felt a bit thin. Book two feels like it has a lot less going on, but that also means it is paced much faster. Despite being the same size book, I finished it in half the time as book one. As a major theme of book two is creation/building, there is a focus on the nature of the literal magical houses of the families and I really liked this. Wandering the various magical mansions was enchanting and seeing one built from the ground up was a lot of fun. However, I did sometimes have a sense of “Why are we here?” Book one tells a concise story that has a clear start and end, and book two feels a little bit like Howard saying “Uh wait… there’s more?” I liked the themes of the second book a lot, but the actual narrative story felt slightly underdeveloped.
While I still don’t think urban fantasy is my calling, I did really enjoy An Unkindness of Magicians and A Sleight of Shadows. Their tight focus and relatable themes kept me engaged through both books and they told a well-rounded and concise story. If you are looking for a cinematic urban fantasy with a nice mix of whimsy and brutality, these might just be right up your alley.
An Unkindness of Magicians – 7.5/10
A Sleight of Shadows – 7.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.