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An Unkindness of Magicians — Book Review

I know they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I’m a very visual person so book covers mean a lot to me. And the white-on-white papercraft look of An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard really spoke to me.

I was a bit hesitant to pick this one up because Howard’s first novel, Roses and Rot, was such a mixed bag for me. It had some really amazing elements, but also some plot holes that disappointed me and an ending that didn’t really work for me. Still, she seemed like a writer with promise so eventually I took a chance on this one and I’m glad I did.
An Unkindness of Magicians starts off a bit slow. For the first couple of days I felt like I was spending a lot of time in peoples’ heads and that no one was really doing anything. I also felt like I was spending a lot of time with a bunch of rich, pretentious white people, and I started to worry that this was going to be as bad as the similarly named The Magicians (which I hated so deeply I’ll never give the TV show a chance).
Once this book gets going though, the plot gets more complicated and the stakes keep getting higher and the tension keeps ramping up, until I absolutely had to know what happened next.
This is the story of a secret society of magicians, divided into Houses. Every now and then a “Turning” happens and the magicians have to fight each other for primacy. It’s a time for houses to rise and fall, and for new houses to be created. Alliances are made and broken, and there’s exactly as much scheming as you would expect from a bunch of rich, powerful people who have been in conflict with each other for centuries.
There’s a lot going on in An Unkindness of Magicians. You’ve got a ridiculously powerful magician with a mysterious past. There’s a serial killer on the loose. An outsider, who also happens to be black, is trying to start his own house and change up the white patriarchal hegemony a bit. Several of the players have concerns about the House of Shadows, with whom a terrible deal was struck to make magic easier for everyone… but at what price?
Oh also eventually the magical challenges become mortal conflicts.
Not everything in this story worked for me. I had some doubts about the feasibility of magical duels to the death among such a limited population. And I felt like there were a few too many subplots going on that didn’t really contribute as much to the overall plot as they should have.
But despite its flaws, I enjoyed this book immensely. There’s a lot of strong female characters at play here, some “good” and some “evil” (mostly there’s shades of grey, though). And sometimes it’s really satisfying to watch the younger generation overthrow the worst elements of the older generation.
The cover of this book may be white and beautiful, but don’t let it fool you. There is a lot of darkness held within. There’s significant violence against women and children, plenty of reference to ritual torture, and some horrific magical deaths. It’s not quite “grimdark” or horror, but there’s some definite Gothic themes and sensitive readers may find that it is too much. Parents of younger readers may wish to pre-read and decide if their kids are ready for some of the mature themes.
Pros: Strong female characters, satisfying revenge plot
Cons: Slow start, questionable logistics
Conclusion: This wasn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read and it really leaves me feeling that Kat Howard is an author to watch out for.
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