Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Saga Press (September 26, 2017)

Length: 352 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

A solid 3.5 star read. Kat Howard enchanted me with her debut Roses and Rot last year, so I was excited to check out An Unkindness of Magicians, her sophomore novel about a hidden world of magic and power. In this “Unseen World”, members of elite magical houses come together every few years to duke it out in a tournament called the Turning, with each family represented by their chosen champion. Ostensibly held to place each house in a hierarchical order based on magical proficiency, the competition may in fact be a front for a more nefarious purpose, as this twisted and snappy tale will soon reveal.

Unlike Howard’s first novel which was written in the first person, An Unkindness of Magicians features a larger cast and bounces between multiple third-person perspectives. Our key players include Sydney, a relative unknown who bursts upon the scene with her extraordinary and unmatched talent with magic; Laurent, an outsider who hopes to enter the Turning for a chance to establish his own House; Grey Prospero, Laurent’s best friend who was disinherited from his House as the result of a serious and undisclosed transgression he committed; Harper, an independent magician determined to infiltrate the Unseen World to discover the truth behind her best friend’s mysterious death; and of course, there are also Miles Merlin and Miranda Prospero, two powerful House leaders who each have a stake in how the Turning plays out.

The situation gets a little muddy though, as the heirless House Prospero takes on Ian Merlin, the beloved son of Miles, as their champion. Left with no other choice, House Merlin must put forth Ian’s sister as champion, potentially pitting the siblings against each other in a fight to the death. Meanwhile, acting as a free agent, Sydney has decided to partner with Laurent and compete on his behalf, and Grey, who is taking a page from his best friend, has decided to try and establish his own House as well, by representing himself in the Turning.

That’s a lot to take in, right? But wait—there’s more, believe it or not. I haven’t even gotten into the “serial killer” part of the plot yet, involving magical women who are murdered for their power-infused finger bones. Then there’s the House of Shadows, a prison for slaves and sacrifices, because unfortunately, magic isn’t an unlimited resource and using it exacts a cost. This is where the Shadows come in, paying the price for the great Houses’ power. As a child, Sydney was a prisoner of the House of Shadows, but she survived and is on her way to winning her freedom, as long as she can fulfill her orders and emerge victorious in the Turning, even if it means having to kill Ian Merlin, whom she has become romantically involved with.

If your head is spinning right now, I don’t blame you; I felt much the same while reading this book, especially in the first half while I struggled to keep all the names and their relationships straight. There’s almost too much going on here for a mere 350-page novel, and as you can imagine, the story felt extremely rushed. Character development also suffered because of this, with the focus being so dispersed on the different storylines and people involved. As a result, I found it nearly impossible to connect with anyone, a stark contrast from my experience with Roses in Rot, which mainly centered on the main protagonist and the deeply compelling relationship with her sister. Possibly, Howard is still trying to find her feet when it comes to writing a large cast and multiple perspectives, finding a balance between pacing and characterization that works. Things were a little shaky with An Unkindness of Magicians, which failed to impart the same level of emotional impact due to weaker characters as well as the breakneck speed at which we whipped through important events.

That said, the story itself is fascinating, and so is the Unseen World in which all of these magical power struggles take place. Furthermore, the second half of the novel is stronger than the first half—not coincidentally, perhaps, since this is also where Howard begins to stitch together the many pieces of the plot. Once the bigger picture starts to take shape, this is when the author’s writing really shines. While her prose in this book is not as beautiful or as deft as it was in Roses and Rot, it does come through every now and then, especially during some of the story’s quieter moments.

All told, I didn’t think Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians was as meaningful or as gorgeously wrought as her debut, but it does make up for that in other areas, like having a fantastic premise and imaginative world-building. Lack of character development and uneven pacing are perhaps the novel’s main weaknesses, but in spite of that, I still enjoyed myself. I’ll continue to be on the lookout for the author’s future work.

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20 Comments on “Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

  1. Pingback: Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard — The BiblioSanctum | Fantasy Sources: Art, Gifts, Ideas, Article Resources, News

  2. I was initially interested in this one but your review makes it seem like a whole series rolled into one book. I don’t know if my head can handle all that right now so maybe I’ll hold off on it for awhile. Thanks for sharing your thoughts though. I have Roses and Rot and will try it first.

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  3. That did sound a bit confusing in the first few paragraphs… But you know what I noticed while reading your review? Two houses use the name of famous literary magicians: Prospero (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and Merline. Also, Prospero had a daughter in The Tempest, named Miranda – and according to your review, this book has a character named Miranda Prospero.

    I’m not sure if you picked up on this…?

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  4. It breaks my heart to see your rating for this book (I know 3 1/2 stars isn’t BAD but…) I’m almost 100 pages in and I’m just starting to figure out what’s going on. She sort of just drops the reader in without any explanation. SO many characters, and so few pages! BUT I am enjoying it and I love the idea. I’m already nervous for the characters!

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  5. This sounds like the kind of book that might have worked better with more room to grow: we sometimes complain about stories that go around in circles never coming to the core of the matter, while this novel appears to suffer from too little breathing room.
    It does sound interesting, though…

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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    • I love the way you put it – exactly! I love fast-paced books, but there’s also such thing as too fast. There was no time for much character development or for the repercussions of important events to really sink in…

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  6. I think I would prefer to pick up Roses and Rot as my first outing with this author. This sounds as though it’s simply too busy and as the first book was already on my wishlist I think I’ll stick with that plan.
    Lynn 😀

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  7. But wait! There’s more!! 😀 I laughed out load at that part of your review. As much as I love the cover for this, I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to pick it up (I haven’t been in the mood for books that require a lot of concentration lately, to be honest!).

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  8. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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