Criminal Magic by Lee Kelley

Criminal Magic is Lee Kelley's second book - after her acclaimed debut, City of Savages published by the Saga Press in Feb 2016. I did get a early copy back in Feb but I just had not got around to reading the same. So digging through my backlist pile, I decided to tackle this 'urban' fantasy set in an alternate America of the 1920's - magic, mobsters and mayhem! Potent mix that I didn't want to miss out on. And once I got started, I was cursing myself for not having got to this any earlier!

This book is the very definition of wild immersive fun - Pistol-whipped on by the two leading characters who 'shine' up so much charisma and originality that I just couldn't stop myself night after night, to steal a few more minutes before sleep finally overtook me, so I could see where their narratives meet up, sync up and then lead on - to one of the most satisfying, unpredictable finale for a book. I don't know if there is a sequel planned but this one reads as a very good standalone by itself.

So Criminal Magic is the story of Joan and Alex, two highly talented magicians in the 1920's America where Magic has been declared illegal. Just as the Prohibition led to bootlegging and smuggling of alcohol and drugs, in Kelley's highly imaginative world - magic is being used to make 'shine' - an addictive substance formed from water that promises a hallucinatory trip beyond pleasure. This part is 'performed' in underground dens, where the patrons are mobsters interested in taking that escape from reality and also the potential of selling this highly addictive 'drug' to beyond the underground. The catch being, 'shine' brewed from plain water is only potent to stay through one day.

The story rolls out from the dual view points of Joan and Alex, whom we know are on a collision course straight from the beginning. And oh! What beautiful characterization. Both Joan and Alex embrace their flaws and make it their own. Personally I liked Joan's character more - her descent into the well of the 'damned' led by greed exploited by this mobster Harrison Gunn out on his own path of twisted agendas and self-redemption plays out beautifully against this backdrop of a magically charged explosive Jazz-age Washington DC. Gunn's dream is to build out an empire based on the profits of 'shine' - an everlasting variety if he can ever produce one. The promise of money and security lures Joan out of her run-down backwoods Virginia house into downtown Washington DC.

On the other hand, Alex Danfrey is struggling with his own demons - having helped out his father peddle magical drugs in the market, he has now signed up to be part of the feds himself. What starts out as an escapist and lazy attitude towards life soon evolves into rock steady confidence and staunch belief in the 'mission' assigned to him. To infiltrate his father's rival gang and bring it down from the inside. His 'climbing out of the dark' makes for a compelling read, so much so that you start cheering him by the end.

Premature comparisons to the movie, 'Department' ends with that premise. Joan and Alex are both highly talented magicians who meet up at the Shine Room that Gunn has set up. And from the very first moment on, there is a beautiful love-story that shapes up. It's rushed yes but it's lovely and nicely realized. I wanted to believe in them and so went along with the narrative flow. The first person narrative from them adds an immediacy to that rising tension and the blossoming relationship between the two and around them.

A word about the magic. Kelley's magic is almost a character by itself. Evocative, spilling off the pages and almost life-like. And Kelley uses it to good effect to shoot the story forward entwining the gangsters and the magicians in a twisted adrenaline rush of action and emotion. The ending is a sucker-punch, watch out for it. All in all, a winning heady rush of a novel that sweeps you along into a magical dangerous alternative Prohibition-era America of the 1920's that is so so much fun! 


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