Saturday, July 13, 2024

City of Broken Magic Explodes with Fantastical Energy

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When I heard Mirah Bolender read an excerpt of her book on a “Fearless Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy” panel at the Madison book festival a month ago, I knew I was in for a treat. Not only she graciously agree to an interview with me, I also nabbed a signed advance reader copy of her debut novel City of Broken Magic. Once I started reading, doing a review was a no brainer. If the idea of a magical bomb squad defusing amulets that birth goo monsters sounds thrilling, you won’t want to miss City of Broken Magic. Plus, today is release day, just in time for you to buy a copy for friends and family for the holidays—and maybe one for yourself. You deserve something nice after such a long year.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown

Five hundred years ago, Magi created a weapon they couldn’t control: an infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with.

Only an elite team of nonmagical humans, known as Sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—Sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

The Good Stuff

Magical bomb squad. Goo monsters. A young energetic protagonist eager to learn her job and do well. A grumpy mentor whose praise means more for being infrequent. What’s not to love? In terms of unique story premise and characters, this book was tailor made for my interests. I have a huge soft spot for the characters I call “grumpy lobsters.” They’re gruff and prickly on the outside, but competent, intelligent, and have a unique, deadpan sense of humor that you only notice if you’re paying attention. They have a squishy interior (not that they let most people know it) and a desire to do what’s right. If you’re thinking Toby from The West Wing, you’re in the right ballpark.

Clae has everything I want from a grumpy lobster character. I had a professor like him in graduate school whose good opinion I wanted to earn more than anything because when someone with high standards and terse conversation, their compliments mean more. Needless to say, when Laura explained all this to her aunt, I got it. I understood why she strove to earn Clae’s good opinion, why his belief in her mattered to her more than anything. Because he saw her for her abilities and talents rather than as a tool or a baby/homemaker. I identified with Laura’s desire to be more than a wife and mother in society that sees those as the primary ‘roles’ for women.

I, too, have wanted to throw up my hands and yell, “Just let me do the work I love without pestering me to have babies!” She wants to be powerful, important, useful, and that struck a chord with me as well as being great character work.

Laura worked well as a POV character for lots of reasons, but especially because of her depth. We see her struggle with wanting to gain Clae’s approval, her jealousy when they take on a new apprentice, and her frustration with wanting more information in order to do her job. For a story that relies a lot on being kept in the dark, Laura is the perfect means to do so. She has both spunk and stubbornness to her that reminds me a lot of the fantasy stories I read growing up, only with a female protagonist instead of a male one. It’s nice to have a female character whose bullheaded, blunt, and impulsive.

Okane, the second apprentice, was a truly tragic figure. As with Laura being the more impulsive one, getting to read a male character whose character is more vulnerable was a lovely change of pace from the stereotypically masculine characters who seem like standard fare these days. The revelation of his backstory felt well-paced, as did his work and friend relationship with Laura. I also appreciated the relationships among the characters. The main focus is on found family and working dynamic between Clae, Laura, and Okane—like Leverage minus the romance. It works really well with the tone of the story.

Speaking of tone, City of Broken Magic balances danger with frustration on a knife’s point. Let me explain. It’s not too spoilery to say that the city of Amicae, where our protagonists live, functions under a government that doesn’t believe in the true threat that the magical amulets—and the monsters that can lurk inside of them—pose. So, while we see Laura, Clae, and Okane battling the monsters and feel the very visceral danger, we also experience the frustration of not having the support necessary to do their job well. The balance of anxiety and frustration heightens the sense of danger. We never know if our heroes are going to be prepared for whatever monster comes next, or if they will be believed and supported in the aftermath.

My initial impression of the ambiance was that it felt a lot like when I’ve watched specials about life in Vietnam and Laos after the war. There are all these degraged magical bombs that could go off at any second and harm innocents, yet the government doesn’t care. Or at the very least, wants to pretend it’s not their responsibility to either warn citizens or prevent such tragedies. Out of sight, out of mind. Until people die. It’s quite effective as a setting and feels eerily fitting given current sociopolitical events.

As I said at the outset, the premise of the story is one that immediately got my attention. Bolender wrote the action sequences well and in a way that lived up to my expectations for a “magical bomb squad.” It’s fast-paced, energetic, and engrossingly frenetic. Every time there’s a lull in the action, it feels like there’s a lit fuse creeping ever so slowly toward the next big, explosive encounter. The whole book is written in what I can only describe as a ‘cinematic’ way, and the last 100 pages especially are absolutely thrilling page turners.

Potential Drawbacks

The exposition, while fascinating felt at times oddly placed. Some of the bigger exposition pieces seemed delayed, as if they should have been given earlier on in the story. However, when I look back at the book as a whole, I’m not sure where I would put them. They fit their immediate context really well, yet there were still times I found myself thinking, “I should have learned this sooner.” Clae was a sometimes a bit too conveniently unforthcoming about the ins and outs of a Sweeper’s role. Certain reveals in the last 150 pages of the book especially seemed like they would have better served to set up the climax had they been given, or at least hinted at, earlier in the story.

Similarly, there are plot threads that weren’t resolved by the end of the book. One scene that stands out to me is one where Laura and Okane tackle a minor infestation in a temple as a part of their training. During the battle, Laura makes a couple of remarks that imply there is far more to the worship practices of certain people groups that could relate to the infestations. But it’s never followed up on in the rest of the book. In fact, much of the larger worldbuilding when it comes to the infestations—where they come from, how to stop them permanently—is left unresolved. Hopefully this means a sequel is forthcoming because I’d like to know more!

Overall, these are fairly minor quibbles and didn’t hinder my enjoyment.

Final Score: 8/10

With compelling characters, a unique premise, and what seems like space for a sequel, I have zero qualms recommending City of Broken Magic. The worldbuilding, though a bit oddly paced and placed at times, is immersive and engaging. There is one other aspect of the book I found to be slightly rushed, but that’s digging into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that one up to you to suss out if you read it. Which you should; it’s highly enjoyable! (And if you’re reading this, Mirah, I’d love to get a novella or short story about Melody Dearborn. A badass, grumpy bisexual woman who kills monsters for a living? Yes, please!)

Images Courtesy of Tor

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