In the New York City of An Unkindness of Magicians, a whole Unseen World exists. In it live magicians, and of course in any society—seen or unseen—there are echelons, good people, bad people, champions, and criminals.
Fair warning, this review contains what some might consider spoilers, and I will also include here—and within the body of the review—a TW for sexual assault and abuse.
The context for An Unkindness of Magicians is the irregularly scheduled yet inevitable Turning, a competition in which magical Houses challenge each other for status, and for the chance to rule the Unseen World. But there’s a problem with this year’s Turning. It’s happening too soon, think some of the older Houses, and there’s a young upstart, Sydney, who has come out of nowhere to challenge the status quo of the Unseen World and bring to light some of the injustices inherent in the very functioning of that world.
You see, in order for magic to work, those with power draw on a specific House—Shadows—for strength. Those in the highest levels of the Unseen World know all about Shadows, but some don’t realize that for their magic to work, a literal sacrifice takes place within Shadows. Sydney’s goal, as a new champion with a mysterious past, is to reveal to the Unseen world exactly where their magic comes from, and to essentially change how magic works—because she was once one of the sacrifices, but fought her way out.
I love Kat Howard’s writing for its richness and allegorical possibilities. In Roses & Rot, she combines fairy tales and sisterly relationships to discuss the nature of truth, lies, and aspirations. As I read more and more of An Unkindness of Magicians, I could not help seeing it as an allegory for the perniciousness of white male privilege, especially when it comes to turning a blind eye to rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. Howard weaves a powerful allegory of complicity and abuse—both physical and of power—into this story of the Unseen World of magic and the people who will do anything to keep hold of power.
****STOP HERE TO AVOID SPOILERS AND TW CONTENT****
The strongest indicator of this allegorical reading for me was when Howard describes the only other woman—mind you, Houses sacrifice only women—to survive leaving the House of Shadows as waking “from dreams in which she was forced to return, when she sat up, breathless and panicked in her bed, she thought of it as a maw, toothed and hungry and endless” (162). Clearly this woman’s dreams stem from PTSD, and recur because she’s now met another woman who survived what she did.
The concept of the allegory cemented itself for me when the Head of the Unseen World begged for “enough magic” to get him through the Turning, based on the deal he’d made decades ago to supply Shadows with a sacrifice. The implication of the magical deal parallels the “deal” men make with each other—and society at large—to cover up certain crimes because it allows them a higher position, more power, less consequences for wrongdoing. Worse still, every Head of House in the Unseen World knows about the sacrifice, because they must sacrifice their firstborn in order to maintain the flow of magic from Shadows to their fingers. This indictment of finger-pointers in society and their tendency to, like the Handmaids in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, vilify the victim and point fingers and say “Her fault, her fault, her fault,” is damning in every way.
Incidentally, for magicians, their magic concentrates most in their fingers. So, when a killer murders barely-magical women for the little bit of magic they have, he takes their finger bones, literally removing the means by which the assaulted and murdered women could identify the killer in court. When an attempt at raping a woman, and killing her to steal her magic goes awry, the killer doesn’t worry, because he knows no one would believe her story because she is “[s]ome nobody who wasn’t even part of a House” (283). Like all sexual predators and rapists, he understands preying on women who are not a part of his immediate world and circle means he’s likely to be successful in his assaults, rapes, and—when his panic reaches a breaking point—murders.
Importantly, though, Howard does include an ally. This ally, once realizing his magical power comes from human sacrifices, refuses to use it anymore and he learns to “break the habits that the Unseen World taught” him (252). Him learning how to break the habits comes at a physical cost to him and takes time—as learning hard lessons sometimes do—but in order to set right the balance of privilege, abuse, and turning a blind eye, it’s warranted, and it’s a price he’s willing to pay. Sydney calls every Head of the Unseen World out for their complicity when she says that they’ve ignored the truth “to make it easier, to make it hurt less, to make whatever it is you told yourself you were doing so you could sleep at night” (336). Meanwhile, the most recent sacrifice trapped inside the House of Shadows—inside the reality and memories of abuse, assault, and rape—can’t close her eyes for fear of nightmares.
Sydney, as the champion of House Beauchamps, sets out to break down the veil of lies surrounding Shadows, and in doing so must sacrifice a major part of herself—as survivors of assault and rape are often vilified and lose privacy and have their own histories, however unrelated to their assault, ripped open for everyone to criticize. She even must deal with someone “telling everyone who will listen” that the problem with magic is her fault, though, as another character points out, “It’s patently untrue,” but [p]eople will believe it because it’s the easier story” (302). In the end, Sydney must find herself again, discover who she is after tearing open the Unseen World and bringing the horrific abuses to light. She has to, as so many survivors do, start over again.
There are several important aspects of the allegorical meaning of the novel I’m listing here for purposes of clarity:
- Turning a blind eye to abuse of any kind is a failure of society and leads to bigger fissures that sometimes take sacrifices to fix.
- Allies are important and necessary, and allies sometimes have to give things up or suffer in order to support marginalized people or people who have suffered abuses of any kind at the hands of a larger population.
- Privilege is real—specifically cishet white male/female privilege—and it’s detrimental to many aspects of society.
- The longer privilege goes unacknowledged, the more damage it does.
- Remember that those who fight privilege and abuses—specifically members of marginalized groups—risk themselves, their reputations, and sometimes their lives to try and set right the imbalance of privilege in society.
- Victim shaming and blaming is real, and happens consistently and predictably, and it is damaging in so many ways.
There is a dark secret that is hiding at the heart of New York City and diminishing the city’s magicians’ power in this fantasy thriller by acclaimed author Kat Howard.
In New York City, magic controls everything. But the power of magic is fading. No one knows what is happening, except for Sydney—a new, rare magician with incredible power that has been unmatched in decades, and she may be the only person who is able to stop the darkness that is weakening the magic. But Sydney doesn’t want to help the system, she wants to destroy it.
Sydney comes from the House of Shadows, which controls the magic with the help of sacrifices from magicians.