Left Hand Magic by Nancy A Collins
One of the problems when you write a serial is to keep the everyday events grounded in whatever passes for reality. In Britain, a classic example is the weekday serial called The Archers (BBC Radio) which is set in a farming community. Now it would no doubt be great for ratings if a flying saucer descended on to a field of wheat and the little grey occupants explained why a nice geometrical design would be left when they took off again. But this would be a one-shot audience high. Until the cylinders fired from the guns on Mars arrive, the writers would have to keep going with talk of which fields they will fertilise next and what they will do if there’s an unexpected frost after seeding. In fact, the weather patterns in the show closely follow the real world. That way, when the fictional farmers look out of their windows, they see what the listeners see. It makes them feel like the folks living next door.
I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Right Hand Magic, the first in this Golgotham series (I wait with interest to see which part of the body is to be featured in the title of the next book). It seemed to me a rather pallid piece of romantic fiction with some vague supernatural threats to deal with. Indeed, I’ve rather consistently found these urban fantasy or paranormal romances (pick whichever label you find most appealing) less than exciting. I’ve speculated the reason is my gender. As a man, I’m more used to blood and gore following on from assorted violent mayhem. Just as gooey romance on the large and small screen tends to leave me nauseous, debates over whether hunks are hot enough to bed are not my choice of reading material. Anyway, now we come to Left Hand Magic by Nancy Collins and, while it sticks to the script of nothing too exciting, there’s a slow improvement in the overall performance.
In Right Hand Magic, Nancy Collins dumped us in media res and I was critical of the failure to explain any of the background. Now we have the first book out of the way, this is evolving into an alternate reality series in which the author is applying the “what if” principle to a world in which the human exists alongside the supernatural. As in The Archers, we look out of the window and see a New York in which all manner of magical folk live in Golgotham, hopefully rubbing along without too many inter-racial or species conflicts. Except, of course, that’s always too much to hope for. So, when newspaper articles emerge praising the bohemian delights of pub crawls round Golgotham, the locals suddenly have to deal with an unwelcome flood of human rubberneckers. Inevitably, after both sides have consumed an appropriate quantity of alcohol, there can be disagreements about whether smoking should be allowed and other cultural issues. Unless nipped in the bud, this can build into a major civil disturbance. Then which policing agency should take jurisdiction and how should both sides of the community deal with the aftermath?
The answer to these questions is provided with some degree of rigor. Nancy Collins is exploring the initial premises and reaching some interesting social and political conclusions. Some of the ideas are also appealing. I like the methods for making an artist’s impression of alleged criminals and taking evidence from witnesses. We could do with such abilities in our human courts. So while I would prefer to avoid the angst over meeting the prospective mother-in-law, the ghastly sentimentality over acquiring and keeping a dog for the home, planning the wedding with Vanessa, dealing with jealousy from female magical folk, and issues over who gets to see whom naked around the home, there are emerging signs of intelligent life in this alternate reality. The argument to stir up the older magical folk is that the humans are marginalising them by developing technology. Who needs teleportation when you have a car or van? Who needs to be able to fly when you have aeroplanes? This has the right level of irrationality to appeal to the prejudices of anyone whose living depends on supplying magical services to the human community.
So Left Hand Magic is an improvement on the first volume, if only because it has begun to take itself seriously. The real test is satisfied. Nancy Collins does not feel the need to go out of her way to introduce outrageous supernatural threats. All the events feel reasonably consistent with the prevalent levels of magical abilities shown by each racial group or bloodline. Yes, there are threats to life and limb but they are not oversold. In other urban fantasies, there are citywide or, in one or two cases, state-wide effects to contend with. Here, everything is highly individual and the greater effects would come from political and not magical pressures. From my male point of view, it’s a shame I have to read through all this romantic mush but, hey, you never know. Perhaps our human heroine will turn out to have superpowers or, better still, the children of this mixed relationship will lead humans and the magical folk into a bright new future together.
For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see Magic and Loss
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.