From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review – Modern Magic by Anne Cordwainer

This engaging book presents sibling rivalry with a twist. Liz Prospero is the sole mundane born into a family of powerful magicians. Her brother John is the strongest new sorcerer in a generation. In Modern Magic, they tell their stories in alternate chapters covering more than a decade of magical history.

In addition to the usual problems of adolescents, the brother and sister grapple with the secrecy that keeps magic-users alive in a mundane world. Liz, who enjoys none of the benefits magical power confers, nevertheless must comply with the sorcerers’ strict code of secrecy, estranging her from the mundane world. That secrecy makes relationships far more complicated for her. Moreover, she has a king-sized chip on her shoulder about magic and her talented brother.

Many of John’s problems arise from his immense magic talent and the Prospero family’s traditional specialty of renegade hunting. Ordinarily, sorcerers under 21 don’t go hunting at all, much less by themselves. But when John’s parents are both busy on other cases, John is called in to handle a rogue sorcerer alone.

John’s brilliance doesn’t prevent him from making mistakes or from agonizing over them. His role as a warrior sometimes leaves him shaken by guilt and self-doubt. As he takes on more and more responsibilities, he drives himself harder and harder. Will he end up losing his mind, as so many magic-users do?

The increasing difficulties of the magic-using community are an integral part of the plot. Their society is organized around a traditional clan structure that gives the head of a family enormous responsibilities, including the supervision of any renegade sorcerers of their name. Although special mental hospitals exist for magic-users, the burden is on the head of the family.

When rogues begin murdering other sorcerers, John faces tough questions: How can the magic-using community deal with the increasing number of rogues? Why are so many sorcerers going bad or becoming mentally ill? Should the sorcerers move from the traditional family-bound societal structure to something closer to a government? Should there be a sorcerer police force?

On several occasions, Liz proves that a mundane point of view can help foil even powerful renegades. She also has to deal with the results of a direct attack on her family.

Less a novel than a series of linked short stories, Modern Magic follows Liz and John through the eventful years from college to establishing their own families. Anne Cordwainer deftly sketches all the usual events of growing up, accepting adult responsibilities, separating from family of origin, and discovering romance—and betrayal. The last few chapters include genuine suspense and some unexpected twists and turns.

The book abounds with excellent small touches, such as the hyper-traditionalist sorcerer community (think Amish or Hasidic versions of Harry Potter). The magic realistically drains the user’s power; even the strongest may become exhausted. John uses a calculator to work out magic formulas and invents a number of new magic tools to add to the sorcerers’ repertoire.

Modern Magic left me curious about the interplay of genetics and technology in creating magic. In this book, magic requires both, if you count a spell as technology (which it certainly is). This is a commonplace in Harry Potter’s world, too, as is the existence of a secret world of magic-users hidden in plain sight among the mundane world. Like J. K. Rowling, Cordwainer openly considers the implications of the genetic difference between magic-users and mundanes, including eugenics and “pure blood.”

I was pleased to see that Cordwainer makes a few gestures toward ethnic diversity, although they come across as clumsy. In a discussion of the Salem witch trials, she mentions that none of the original white settlers were magic-users, although the Native Americans were. It’s unclear from this passing reference whether all or some of them have the genetic characteristic, and somehow it smacks of the trope of the Magic Indian, closely related to the Magic Negro.

And there has to be a better way to indicate that a character is a sorcerer of color other than by saying “his brown cheek paled”—a solecism she actually repeats.

Gender roles seem quite conventional; Liz and John’s mother may be a powerful sorcerer, but she is also the one who cooks up goodies for her offspring. However, one clan actually chooses a female head of the family. If there are LGBT sorcerers, they don’t appear in this book.

Despite its limitations, this is a fast, enjoyable read that improves as the book goes on.

Lynn Kendall is the real name of a writer and editor whose work has been published for more than twenty years under various pen names. She lives alone with her cat and too many books.

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