I picked up A Criminal Magic on a whim at work. The cover was pretty, and anything 20s basically is a guarantee that I’ll at least try and read it. It wasn’t until I was more than a hundred pages in that I looked on the back and saw V. E. Schwab’s name there, all nice and pretty, telling me that I should read this book.
So, naturally, because V. E. Schwab is queen, I finished it.
I wasn’t absolutely pulled in, not at first. It starts out with the two main characters in wildly different places, and while I totally get the whole “setting the scene” there’s really nothing in a falling down farmhouse-turned-magical-moonshine-den that captures me. Not if there’s not a ghost. Give me anything falling down and put a ghost in it and I’m probably there.
But, guys, this book tricks you. It starts out slow and sleepy, with a magical flapper party thrown in for giggles, and then BAM. You’re in the middle of a magic-trafficking bootleg operation and it’s FABULOUS.
The only other book that I can think of that I’ve read centering around bootlegging in the 1920s is the Bright Young Things series. Which, while good, focuses more on the opulence and benefits to having a gangster/bootlegger father.
This one focuses more on the business side of things, and the politics between gangs and just! It was just so interesting getting to be right in the world, and see what goes on behind the scenes of the whole racket. Plus the magic twist doesn’t hurt things at all.
Alex and Joan
Personally, I really like the way that the relationship builds (and this isn’t spoiling anything, this is on the cover). It seems very natural, very plausible. None of that “Oh, they’re the main characters and they’re nothing alike so lets change the personality of one of them completely so that they can be together” stuff. Just, there’s awkward flirting and secret keeping and trying to be perfect so that the other one will like them.
And, in a way, they both have kind of the same story. They’re both on a kind of a revenge kick: Alex wants revenge on that happened to his family, and Joan wants revenge on the past.
As much as I would think that that wouldn’t make them super compatible, it really does. SO many books go with the opposites attract storyline that it seems almost like a requirement. This one, they find out that they’re doing what they’re doing for mostly the same reasons, it only brings them closer.
So just this whole concept makes me happy. In this universe, instead of banning alcohol in prohibition, they ban magic. Sorcerers can brew this thing called sorcerer’s shine, and it’s basically alcohol on steroids that disappears in 24 hours.
Because it’s a very happy, positive kind of a high, people get addicted fast. Which, really, I don’t blame them, but the problem comes in when the sorcerers themselves get addicted. That’s where Joan’s problems come from. So the US Government outlawed magic entirely, basically, so that people will stop taking it which of course backfires.
There’s magic speakeasies EVERYWHERE, and they’re FABULOUS. I want to go to one, have my next birthday there or something. The rules of the magic are pretty clear, too. Not like one of those it just is because it is, but there’s lineages and it manifests kind of like genetics. You can just tell that it was really thought out and crafted. There’s even magic that is only passed down through families that no one else knows.
Some Things I Wasn’t a Fan Of
Joan seems to get lost in the world of magic far more quickly than she acts like she would. She starts out hating magic with every fiber of her being, and refuses to use it at all, then suddenly, she’s Miss Magic. Plus she pretty much bails on all of the rest of her ideals. She forgets about her family for a while, and she tells all about the magic that’s been passed down in her family for generations.
Also, Harrison Gunn seemed a little…gratuitous. Like there needed to be a slick, charming gangster guy who everyone knew was dangerous (because what gangster isn’t, really) but fell in with anyway. Although, I guess, he was not as bad as he could have been, so I didn’t have to hate him the whole time.
All in All
HIGHLY recommend this one! There’s enough action in it to keep you on the edge of your seat, and enough magic that it keeps you enthralled. They balance each other beautifully. It’s kind of like if The Great Gatsby and The Night Circus had a rebellious child that does all the things it’s not supposed to do.
I’m definitely going to be picking up Lee Kelly’s other book, and eagerly await whatever she’s got for us next.
What do you think? Going to add this to your TBR or nah?
What do you think of historical reimaginings like this?