Thursday, February 21, 2013

Right Hand Magic

Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Compact (289 pages)
Publication: December 7, 2010 from Roc
Premise: Tate, a welding sculptor trying to make a name for herself without her wealthy family's backing, is out of a home and finds herself moving to Golgotham, New York's murky supernatural district. Her new landlord is Hexe, a warlock trying to survive by using only the healing and mending Right Hand magic against the traditions of magic users in general and his family in particular. When they find a were-cougar in the backyard, they're both forced farther into the dangers of the supernatural underworld than they had planned.
Warnings: torture in the backstory, mild to moderate gore
Recommendation: If you have a craving for something set in New York with a twist, this isn't bad, but it tends towards the simplistic and doesn't quite pack the punch necessary to make up for that.

What makes this one vivid and fun:

The protagonist of Right Hand Magic, Tate, is introduced early on, but we don't have to wait long to meet the real main character: Golgotham itself. In this world, magical people creatures have backed away from warfare to mix uneasily with the fringes of humanity. In New York, they do so in their own district of Golgotham-- humans visit the area with a mixture of fear and excitement, as though they're going slumming in the city's most dangerous and exotic place. Taxi drivers shy away from taking passengers even to the large skull gates that mark the edge of the district, and Tate is the first human without psychic gifts to try to live there. She has to move out of her current apartment because the noise of her artwork disturbs the neighbors, and an ad for a cheap apartment in Golgotham catches her eye. It's a bold move, given that she's never even really visited as a tourist, but it makes for a perfect introduction to the area-- through her eyes, everything is new and perplexing, so she asks lots of questions that blend organically into the flow of the story.

Golgotham's local color works well right from the start, when Tate goes to investigate and meets her landlord's familiar, a talking and hairless winged cat who would love nothing more than to be allowed to eat the nosy human. The landlord, Hexe, is willing to take a chance on a fully human tenant as long as she can pay in advance, and to serve as a guide while she adjusts to her new home. He is a Kymeran sorcerer, a talented member of the six-fingered species who can channel magic through his hands to provide charms and magic to people who come seeking his help. When normal human movers refuse to travel into Golgotham, where the roads are too old and narrow for cars and have to be traversed by things like centaur-drawn carts, he guides her to the best mover in the city; she's confused at first by his refusal to leave his room to help her, but soon learns that he has moved her belongings by magic. Collins has put a lot of thought into figuring out how people would use magic for convenience and profit in everyday life, although there are some economic questions that I'll get into later. People here are more flexible than they are in human life, sometimes willing to deal in future favors owed or minor magical supplies in lieu of money, though they're also practical enough to accept cash in most normal circumstances. It's easy to write overly-cute barter economies where people just trade things, but the people of Golgotham do a good job of existing at the intersection of ancient and modern ways of life.

That intersection lets the narrative play with some fun ethical questions-- for example, Tate knows that while she loves living in Golgotham and doesn't look down on the residents, if too many young white artists follow her, the area could succumb to gentrification and drive out the very people who make the place so vital. She wants to belong, but there's an undercurrent of anti-human sentiment that's based on very real problems in the way humans and Kymerans interact. Humans often see Kymerans as less than people, but stoop to using them to curse their enemies or smooth away their problems. There's the added loop that Kymerans can provide magic that essentially function as date-rape drugs, so humans aren't entirely wrong to warn each other to be wary of accepting food or drink from them. But it's also humans using these methods while Kymerans take their fair share for being suppliers and then some, simply because the human rapists are harder to spot in a crowd. Tate spends a little while juggling what she thinks of humans and Kymerans and how they see each other, since she's in a unique position, and the narrative avoids offering easy answers.

Magic is a little more clear-cut, since it revolves around a simple mechanic and set of ethical questions. In short, Kymerans channel magic through their hands: the right hand for benign or constructive magic, and the left for curses and harm. Most witches are ambidextrous, working with whatever is most convenient because they have to struggle and compete to make a living. This makes them versatile, but this is balanced by the way magical intensity works. Experience makes a difference, of course, but a witch has access to more power if he or she focuses on only one hand or type of magic. A witch who does only curses can create a powerful effect that takes immense skill and energy to raise, while one who only uses Right Hand magic has the best chance of lifting such a curse. Casters who switch back and forth will struggle to counteract the spells of a more focused practitioner. This leaves every Kymeran making decisions about ethics and efficacy, though it's incredibly unusual to use only Right Hand magic, to the point where people toss slurs at Hexe in the street for doing so.

The rest of the system works beautifully, but the economics here are bizarre. We learn in one scene that someone can buy a crude but effective curse for maybe fifty dollars, and Hexe is able to charge five thousand to reverse that curse the same day (though a thousand is closer to his normal rate). Humans who are cursed need those effects removed, preferably as soon as possible, and specializing in spell-lifting powers seems like it would be a great way to turn a profit. It's possible that not using magic for harm might put you in danger from jealous magical rivals who know that about you, but the prejudice against doing something that would make great financial sense feels forced. That aside, though, this is perhaps the best sort of magical mechanic to use in a tightly-paced urban fantasy book; it's easy to follow and allows for plenty of improvisation.

The red pen:

Unfortunate though it is, this book's largest problem boils down to the relationship between its two main characters. Tate is a wealthy child of privilege who wants to make art and prove that she can live and succeed on her own terms instead of blending into high society. Hexe is shown early on to be a landlord because his mother wanted him to have a steady income stream, and people on the street tend to at least pay him the semblance of respect. In the short chapter when they meet, Tate notices that Hexe is attractive and muscular and has a compelling masculine scent. Later on, he confesses that her aura looks like a beautiful mandala of sparkly rainbow uniqueness glorious colors. They get together because they have parallel character struggles to establish their own identities, which means that the plot wants them to fall madly in love, and so they do. But there's no fire to their relationship: they don't even fight, coming no closer to sharp words than Hexe reminding her a few times to not judge people in Golgotham by their appearances or mistakes. They just....form a mutual admiration society and make googly eyes at each other, so it's hard to be actually invested in their relationship.

Great though the worldbuilding can be, it starts to feel stale and repetitive by the time Tate visits the Fly Market, an open-air market full of magical supplies. She's already spent time in the bizarre maze of the Rookery and the teeming masses of Witch Alley, which....also sells magical things to both locals and tourists, just with more of a focus on spells than material components. Tate does get a few glimpses of bars and restaurants when she's tagging along with Hexe, but most of the lavish description goes to the three different places to shop, and by the third it's lost some of its charm. These people have to buy clothes, get their hair cut, and buy groceries, just like humans do; Golgotham would have gained some  depth had Tate ventured beyond the casual food and shopping scene that's largely available to tourists. Given how often she waxes eloquent about loving the character of the district, it's disappointing to see her not dig more deeply into what it's like to attend to her basic needs when it's obvious at a glance that she doesn't belong.

That issue of home and belonging has the potential to pack quite a punch, and the questions about ethics and prejudice and gentrification mentioned above seem promising, but they have two problems. Firstly, Tate is an enormous hipster who wants a place to belong so badly that she ends up trying to appropriate the identity of her new neighbors. While it's admirable that she cares about her friends, she's also wrapped up in her new home in a way that sometimes makes her embarrassing to read. She goes home to her family at one point to talk, and ends up being awkward. Some Kymerans refer to humans as "numps," people who don't understand anything and are probably (as Scratch puts it) smelly fools. At home, Tate slips with "numps--I mean, humans" when explaining Kymerans to her mother. She has lived with in Golgotham for maybe a few months, Hexe and his friends don't use that sort of language, and even Scratch drops the term for her quickly; she doesn't hear the word daily.

This means that she's borrowing a slightly rude term for a group of which she is a member and dropping it into conversation as what feels like a shallow attempt to demonstrate that she belongs in Golgotham. When paired with her reflections about how normal New York is just so boring compared to Golgotham's diversity, it seems like Tate is the threat to the traditional neighborhood that some Kymerans believe she is. She wants an identity, so she's trying on one that seems edgy without seeming to realize that she can take that role off at will: no one will be afraid of her extra magical finger or slam the door in her face because of how she looks. But the Kymerans near her can never have that privilege (at least without a magical disguise--this isn't mentioned in the book, but raises some interesting questions about whether they ever choose to pass for human). She has the wealth to do almost whatever she wants, and so the stakes feel low for her on both sides of the magical divide-- even if her art fails or people don't like her in Golgotham, she can bounce back easily.

The other problem is both simpler and more awkward: these conflicts of race and species and danger are based on very real conflicts that have happened to actual people. When wealthy New Yorkers launch racial slurs at Kymerans, but still go visit Golgotham for sex and illegal thrills, it's easy to see the parallels to, for example, white people slumming it in Harlem in the early twentieth century. When people warn Tate that the residents of Golgotham are all potential rapists, it's very easy to hear the parallels to even present-day panic about predatory gay people. In short, the narrative plays with civil rights issues....but to the best of my recollection, there is not a single non-white person in the book, and the only LGBTQ characters are two completely accepted lesbian bikers in Golgotham. There was a lot of room to explore how different marginalized groups fit into Golgotham (really, no humans experiencing actual prejudice and poverty have tried to have a truce and pay rent there to escape danger?). Instead, the narrative pulls the hat trick of borrowing minority experiences while vanishing almost all of the actual people who have had those experiences. The way Hexe calls nump "the N-word" in one place with no demonstrated awareness of the other N-word truly doesn't help here this sense of tone-deafness. It's difficult to pull off "woe is this magical population, granted with amazing powers and yet viewed with prejudice" at the best of times, and this isn't the best of times-- with this tilt, the world can feel more like a conceptual experiment than a vivid place.

There are other smaller issues: the deeply awkward attempts at Kymerian slang, the flatness of most of the minor characters, the way one minor character gets over being forced to commit murder at the sight of a pretty girl, the use of excessive punctuation to convey shock, not to mention the predictable stab at a cryptic prophecy halfway through the book, but this has already run on for quite a bit, so let's cut here.

All in all, the potential of this book is more compelling than its actuality: a book about a supernatural ghetto district where the population is trying to stay afloat amid internal conflict and cruelty could be nothing short of stellar. Unfortunately, the book as it stands raises issues without really addressing them, though it might in the sequels, and seems determined to simplify other aspects of the plot, possibly for space reasons. It seems like this might have one better as a YA book, given how it treats darkness as set dressing and insists on making a crush the center of the universe. It's not bad by any means, and I'll be keeping an eye out for whatever project Collins does next, but this one falls short of its promise.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Golgotham series. The second, Left Hand Magic, came out in December of 2011, and the third book in the series, Magic and Loss, comes out this November.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Sunshine by Robin McKinley. The handling of vampires is good, but the society itself really makes this one: magical power is sort of an open secret and exists across a broader spectrum. Some people have minor power and hide it to pass as normal because they're ashamed, some are powerful and feared, some work for the government....magic is just there, and people react to it as people instead of a monolithic wave of how people with any given attribute are supposed to act.

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