Book Review 2011 #2: Hard Magic

My second book of the year is my first Laura Anne Gilman novel…


I’ve mentioned before in previous reviews of mine that Urban fantasy is a genre that I find hit or miss. Certainly its popular, authors are doing well cranking them up, but many urban fantasy novels feel like either romance novels with not well worked out paranormal elements, or feel like they are bandwagoners trying to get in on a hot sub-genre. And, I generally like my landscapes more fantastic and bigger. But I am willing to dip into the sub-genre now and again, if for no other reason than to keep abreast of how it is evolving.
Laura Anne Gilman is an author whose work I have not read before, but she has popped up in mentions of blog posts and social media by authors I have varying levels of contact and friendship with. So, I was delighted to enter and win a contest for a copy (signed as it turns out) of one of her books: Hard Magic
Hard Magic starts a new novel in her “Cosa Nostradamus” universe. Seven books in, there is not a lot of explanation of how the universe works, but clues in the book provided by good writing from Gilman allowed me to piece together that Hard Magic and its previous novels are set in a modern-day urban fantasy universe where magicians, and nonhuman races (“fatae”) secretly live in a world ignorant of their presence. A major organized faction of practitioners (Talents), called the Council, try to organize the magical community. Opposing them are lonejacks, who are talents who try and make their own, anarchic way in keeping their powers secret and doing the business of making a living.
Bonnie Torres, a character who had appeared as a minor character in previous Cosa Nostradamus books, gets center stage in Hard Magic. With a Council patron, and a lonejack sort of independence, she nicely encapsulates the dichotomy between these factions as she tries to make a living in NYC.
When Bonnie gets a call to attend a job interview she never applied for, she is soon sucked into PUPI–Private Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations. She joins a number of other misfit Talents similarly recruited, and together learn to harness their powers for magical forensics.
Oh, and of course, they DO get a case, investigate the strange suicide of a prominent pair of Council members that may very well be something more than a suicide. And in the process, Bonnie and her new friends stir up a number of very dangerous hornets nests in the process…
As an expatriate New Yorker, I felt like a slice of home reading this book, as, with the exception of a few teleports to Boston and Chicago, the entirety of the book takes place in New York City. From jokes about the GWB to pumpernickel bagels, Gilman brings forth the spirit of New York. Bonnie is clearly not a native, and we get a sense of her trying to understand the city, like a cat, has decided to adopt her. Unlike some urban fantasy that I have read, the setting is in harmony with the fantastic elements and they work together (much like, say, Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron).
The central mystery is a fair one by the standards of the universe. More than the mystery, though, the writing and the text show that Gilman is even more interested in exploring the characters. While we only follow Bonnie’s point of view and her mind, Gilman does allow us to slowly reveal aspects of her employers and fellow employees. By the end of the book, we have a good handle not only on Bonnie but also her evolving relationships with PUPI, and her mentor J as well.
The advantage for Gilman to start a new series within her Cosa Nostradamus universe is that it provides a new entry point for people wanting to explore a new urban fantasy universe. If you are looking to try some urban fantasy, or more especially if you are a urban fantasy junkie, I recommend you give Bonnie Torres and the PUPI investigators a try.