Book Review: Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1/Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace (November 5, 2019)
Length: 400 pages
Unnatural Magic was a solid read that was hard to pin down at times, but once you learn how to go with the flow, the book might end up surprising you in the best way possible. A novel which strives to tackle traditional fantasy in a fresh and unique way, C.M. Waggoner’s debut offers a cleverly transformative tale that explores love, ambition, and the tenacity of spirit in finding acceptance.
Set in a world where humans and trolls co-exist, albeit not always peacefully, Unnatural Magic opens on a setting which feels vaguely turn-of-the-century gaslamp, starting with an introduction to the first of our major characters, Onna Gebowa. From an early age, she has displayed an aptitude for magic, though achieving her dreams of attending the premiere academy of arcane arts will be difficult, given the male-dominated field. After being rejected, Onna decides to forge her own path, traveling to the city of Hexos where they will be more appreciative of her extraordinary talent and skills.
Meanwhile in another part of the world, Tsira is a half-troll who is also planning for a journey to Hexos. Despite being daughter of the clan leader, she has always been regarded as a bit of an outsider, and Tsira has had enough, choosing instead to leave her people and strike out on her own to find work among the humans. On the way to the city though, she saves the life of Jeckran, a human soldier who has been wounded and left for dead in the snow. As Tsira nurses him back to health, the two of them grow closer and eventually become lovers, continuing on to Hexos together.
While the ties linking Onna and Tsira’s storylines are still tenuous at this point, they quickly become more apparent when a brutal string of murders bring human and troll relations to a near state of war. Trolls are being targeted by the killer or killers, and Onna is on a mission to find out who and why. Personally affected by the killings, Tsira also throws herself into the investigation, with Jeckran loyal by her side.
As I said, once you get into the rhythm of things, Unnatural Magic can be absolutely delightful. It has the sprawling feel of an epic fantasy, but also features an intriguing mystery at its heart. The human-troll politics of this world were interesting too, and Waggoner has created a troll culture that feels well-crafted, robust, and replete with lore and history. The two societies differ in the way they view magic, but they also have very different expectations and ideals when it comes to certain social behaviors and gender roles. Nothing illustrates this better than the relationship between Tsira and Jeckran, who are looked upon with morbid curiosity or downright contempt wherever they go. Falling outside the norms of both cultures, their romance nonetheless works well for them, though like all couples they had to go through an adjustment period.
Then there’s Onna, whom I confess I had a hard time liking at the beginning. Ineffectual and timid, perpetually on the verge of bursting into tears, she was an infuriating character who was utterly lacking in self-agency. It’s like, come on, girl! You’re smart and you can out-magic all the men in the room, grow some backbone and stop letting everyone trample all over you! But quickly it became clear the author was setting up for Onna’s eventual transformation and growth. Gradually, her character comes into her own and becomes a force to be reckoned with, taking on a more authoritative role. By the end of the book, she’s a completely different person.
But now, time for the part I dread most in which I talk about the book’s weaknesses. Not too surprisingly, this being a debut, there were a few hitches. While there was plenty to love when it came to the ideas in world-building, I could have done with more actual descriptions of the setting. I often had a difficult time picturing the characters’ surroundings, especially when they were in the city which felt more like a cobbled-together backdrop rather than a living, breathing hub. At times it also felt like Waggoner got carried away, trying to pack too much into the plot. This affected the pacing, and quite honestly, some of the early parts of the book were a slog because it took so long for the crux of the novel to emerge. It wasn’t until both Onna and Tsira’s storylines started linking up that the writing became tighter and the plot became more streamlined, around halfway through the book. I also want to make a note about the sex and the swearing. I take no issue with either in general, but some of it was written so awkwardly and felt so out-of-place that most of it just struck me as awfully self-indulgent.
But overall, I have to say I enjoyed myself. While certain aspects could have used a few tweaks, on the whole Unnatural Magic was quite brilliant and solid for a debut. With experience and time, many new authors will iron out a lot of issues in their writing, and with that said, I think C.M. Waggoner is definitely a name to keep an eye on.