Dark Magic by James Swain
Sometimes it’s rather amusing to see the world through American eyes. Dark Magic by James Swain (TOR, 2012) takes us back in time. During World War II, a group of five child psychics were helping the Allies with the war effort (cry God for Harry, England, and fish and chips). When a group of American generals were planning the Normandy invasion, they went to consult the wunderkinds who gave them pointers on where the Nazis were deploying their troops in northern France — it’s a bit like They Used Dark Forces by Dennis Wheatley but reduced to a couple of sentences, i.e. it’s an improvement. In 1988, two of the original five Brits asked the FBI to arrange asylum and protection for them in America — not for them the pathetic British, only the best police force in the world would do. Except, inexplicably, the Americans failed to protect them and they were killed by agents for the other three in New York. Fortunately their son survived to become our hero. He’s now grown up and, like all good eugenics experiments, he’s inherited his parents’ abilities. This makes him a danger to the three Elders (sounds kinda spooky, what?) who’ve now gone freelance and are selling their supernatural services to the highest bidders. That means our hero must be assassinated and the Elders know just the man to do the job for them. Major Wolfe is a stone-cold killer, ex-Army and boasts that he’s never failed in a mission before (authors always tell you this to reassure you he will fail this time).
So there you have it. Peter Warren (his stage-name as a magician is Warlock — can’t think why) and a group of six other American psychics foresee a mass-death event in Times Square when New York theatre-goers emerge at the end of the shows. Peter sees the face of the man who’s most likely going to be responsible. The next evening, this man turns up at Peter’s magic show and tries to kill him. This reintroduces Peter to the detective who originally investigated his parents’ death. Apparently the FBI alerted this detective and her partner to a death-threat against Peter but, of course, they arrive just too late to arrest the man. Telephoning the theatre and warning Peter is not allowed. Plots always expose our hero to danger early on. Peter and Major Wolfe must take the measure of each other and gird their loins for the coming battle. Fortunately, Wolfe actually does prove moderately efficient as a killer except when confronted by a real psychic who can see him coming.
Now don’t get me wrong. Dark Magic is a highly competent piece of writing. It’s playing in well-known territory and it remembers to tick all the boxes of the standard plot elements. Peter is a real talent but hides his abilities by performing as a stage magician. His girlfriend is just finding out about his hidden abilities. This gives us readers the additional worry she might either rat him out to “Government” or think him a freak and decamp with the nerdy hacker (every thriller, supernatural or otherwise, needs a hacker when information is in short supply). Anyway, if she did run off, there’s another girl waiting in line so Peter wouldn’t miss out in the love stakes for too long. Not surprisingly, given the WWII experience, “Government” knows supernatural abilities are real and has a holiday camp for talented people prepared to help Uncle Sam in its unending fight against whoever the latest enemy is. Lower down the food chain, the FBI, in the guise of Agent Garrison, runs a Pattern Recognition Unit. It’s been following a daisy-chain of deaths around the world, all linked to Major Wolfe and our three Elders. Now Peter reveals the vision of the deaths in Times Square and Garrison intones the famous phrase, “Your secret is safe with me.” As the plot requires, there’s no suggestion of protective custody, safe houses or witness relocation. Garrison just assumes our hero can do the usual heroic stuff without his help and drives off. Then, because I don’t do unnecessary spoilers, a lot of stuff happens and the book ends.
Right, so first the problematic issues. The prose style is generally uninvolving and, in the early stages, there’s very little dynamic to drive the narrative forward. A lot just happens without any background information or explanation to make it feel credible. However, despite this, there’s enough to justify reading to the end. First, there are some fascinating insights into both the way stage magicians work and the principles of how some of the illusions are achieved. As those of you with experience of seeing magic performed will know, it’s mostly about misdirection. The audience thinks or believes it can see what’s happening but, for some reason they are looking in the wrong place, or there’s a strategically placed object that prevents them from seeing a crucial element. James Swain amply demonstrates his expertise in all things magical. We then come to the real reason for persisting. Dark Magic has a very clever reveal about two-thirds of the way through. This is an example of the real stage magician’s prestige converted to the page. When you get to it, you can help but applaud. The climax that follows is genuinely exciting although one aspect of it is somewhat perfunctory. Which leads me to a final thought. As an atheist, I was faintly amused by the moral of this book but, if I understand the psyche of American Christians correctly, some might find it offensive to suggest this is the best way to prevent another 9/11.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.