Find the Magician. And stop him before he destroys our future.*
The Lost Magician starts with a connection, though they don’t know it yet. Esta is a thief who uses her old magic to manipulate time, slowing it down and even jumping to the past and present. Dolph is the leader of a gang of Mageus who use their powers to protect those who cannot. And Harte is trying to blend in as a Sundren magician, hiding his Mageus powers in plain sight in a time when having old magic marked you as a target for the Order of Ortus Aurea in their climb to power. Their stories are connected by the Ars Arcana–a book that was thought to be lost. A book that is said to hold the secret to magic itself. A book that they all want.
Lisa Maxwell has created a story full of fascinating characters, a vivid setting, and an interesting plot. At 512 pages, it may seem a little long, but it kept me fascinated the entire time. As the story progressed and the twists began to show themselves, I seemed to read it faster, hurtling toward an end that made me angry–because it was over and I wanted to read more! While I initially thought The Last Magician was a stand-alone novel, it turns out that it’s the first part of a duology. I’m so glad I get to spend more time with the people and places of Maxwell’s Mageus society, even though I’m not happy about having to wait. I will just have to practice my patience.
The bulk of The Last Magician is set in the world of 1900s Manhattan, in the city before it became soaring skyscrapers and cacophonous noise at all hours of the day and night. The Manhattan of The Last Magician is full of the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages through cobblestone streets, the sickly-sweet smell of opium nests, and the thrill of living in a city that looks toward the future. The city has elements of hope and fear as the Sundren and Mageus live together, sometimes unknowingly. For the Mageus, having the old magic means that you have an affinity: power that allows you to manipulate time, know someone’s thoughts, or kill someone without touching. Naturally, the Sundren fear this, because people often fear what they don’t understand. The old magic is palpable in the air, with a warmth and a hum that is so different than Esta’s Manhattan.
In present-day Manhattan, the old magic–the magic that Esta and the rest of the Professor’s Mageus crew have–is nearly dead. The one thing that connects the two times, other than the magic flowing through their veins, is the Brink. The Brink, to those without magic, is nothing. To those with magic, it is terrifying. If they get too close to the Brink, it seems to pull at the magic in them, desiring to take it from them. To get close is to feel like you are losing part of yourself. To pass through means the loss of your mind and certain death. The Mageus have been trapped on the island ever since the Brink was created by the Order. And in 1902, more and more Mageus flock to Manhattan and the promise that they will not be persecuted there like they have been in their old countries, only to find that they are trapped there by the Brink.
Maybe it was because the Order of Ortus Aurea and all they’d done so long ago seemed more like myth than reality. The stories had been so monstrous, but in actuality, the Order itself had always been little more than a shadow haunting the periphery of Esta’s vision, the boogyman in her unopened closet.*
The villains in The Last Magician are the members of the Order, a group of well-off men who believe that the old magic is feral. They have made it their work to protect the city and its Sundren from the Mageus. They believe if they study and practice alchemy, the hermetic sciences, and theurgy, they can gain the same powers as the Mageus–but because they have found it through Reason and Enlightenment, they feel that they are the ones who deserve the power. I love when villains believe they are doing “the right thing.” I didn’t feel that the members of the Order became caricatures. Maxwell chose to have one of the points of view be that of an aspiring Order member, and I thought that was a good way to show just how easily people’s beliefs can be twisted into something villainous to others. It works the opposite way as well: I can understand why those without magic would fear those with magic, and why those with magic fear the power of hatred.
Of course, the novel is not as simple as Mageus against the Order. There are loyalties that exist to be followed or to be betrayed. Because it’s not just that you work for one or the other–you work for yourself. Everyone has an angle that sometimes allies them with others, but other times there’s lies that you must commit to as you try to advance your situation to a better one. Life as a Mageus is precarious, especially when there are Mageus working for the Order. So while the Order is the main villain, they don’t become the only villain. It’s not only an us vs them thing. I appreciated that Maxwell created a world that had shades of grey.
Trying to find the right layer of time was a little like riffling through the pages of a book. Sometimes she could catch glimpses of what each layer held–the flash of chrome, a bright swirl of skirts. It took all of her concentration to find a single image to latch on to, a single date to focus on, before she could slip through to it.*
The Last Magician focuses on characters who have old magic, primarily Esta, Harte, and Dolph. Others occasionally have their moments, but for the most part, the story is carried by these three. Esta is the reason the story happens. As a Mageus, she has an affinity to manipulate time. Normally, she can only slow seconds, allowing her to get around in what looks like the blink of an eye to others. With a magical artifact, she can manipulate time further, going back in time to participate in a heist that needs to succeed in order for her to get back to her present. I liked that she was a present-day girl stuck in a time when women were considered the gentler and lesser sex, so she had a hard time conforming–and she refused to do so. I liked that occasionally there were clashes between her modernity and the beliefs of the time. It added an element of unease–male characters were unsure of her at times–she’s showing her ankles!– and she had to be careful not to reveal herself as a stranger to their time.
Regret was for people who dragged their past along with them everywhere, and Esta had never been able to afford that kind of dead-weight.*
I really liked Esta as a protagonist. She didn’t allow herself to become a maiden who needed to be rescued. She was strong and outspoken, having just as much of a role in the heist as the male characters. The women in this novel were portrayed in a no-nonsense, get-things-done way. I also liked that Esta didn’t become wrapped up in a possible romantic entanglement. She remained focused on the task she’d been given.
Harte and Dolph are natives of Manhattan in 1902. They’re Mageus in a time when having magic was more common. Harte makes a living by performing onstage as a magician, where his acts that used to marvel are now beginning to fall flat. He managed to get himself out of the world of Mageus gangs, but when Dolph comes calling, he realizes that he may have a permanent way out. Harte uses his charm to get what he wants, and having an ability like his tends to help matters. It’s dangerous to use it in the position he’s now in, but if it means he can escape the city and his past…Harte is up for most anything at this point. Harte is likable but stubborn. I really enjoyed reading his parts, especially when he and Esta interacted. Dolph is kind of like a mob boss, but more time is spent on his kind side than his darker one. It’s whispered at, but Dolph is consistently shown to be more of a fatherly figure: he gathers Mageus from the streets and protects them, sometimes requiring that they take his mark. He watches over Mageus families who have lost breadwinners or who have children who can’t control their powers yet. He wants to save everyone, and his plot focuses on this desire.
As for the other characters, I don’t want to say too much purely because there’s too much to say. I really liked all of the side characters equally and hope that they’ll have more page time in the sequel. I thought that they were all really well down with their own unique personalities and narrative voice. Having additional characters rounded out the setting and the book, making it feel more alive. The back stories of all of the characters were given to the reader in bits and pieces, adding to the story instead of overwhelming it. It was a perfect blend of story telling and information.
The voices in this novel were crafted extremely well. They were very vivid and fit in with the time that they were meant to live in. I really enjoyed following Esta, Harte, and the few others who had points of view in The Last Magician. I think that it made the novel more well-rounded to have multiple points of view to advance the story. I love when multiple points of view create a twisted narration where the reader isn’t always shown everything. There wasn’t an unreliable narrator, but there were moments where the point of view cut away to another and set the reader on a different path as they followed another character. We weren’t spoon fed everything regarding the plot, which allowed me to be somewhat surprised when things came about.
Maybe she could rewrite her own future. Reclaim magic.*
While the story follows Esta as she uses her affinity to travel back in time, the story has other facets that she doesn’t understand at first. The novel expands slowly, adding to the main story plot until there is a complicated story full of family, magic, betrayal, and time travel. I was hooked from the first page and was glad that I remained consistently interested in the novel the entire time I was reading it. While I found the only similarities between The Last Magician and the Shades of Magic series to be the magic element, I think that readers of the Shades of Magic series will like this novel’s unique blend of historical, alternative fiction, its magic system, and its characters. I’m really glad that I received an advance reading copy to review. I really loved this novel and I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the duology. The Last Magician comes out tomorrow and I highly recommend it. It’s likely going to be one of my favorite releases of 2017.
Magic lived in the spaces, in the emptiness between all things, connecting them. It waited there for those who knew how to find it, for those who had an innate ability to grasp those connections*
I received a copy of The Last Magician from NetGalley via the publisher. The Last Magician will be available on July 18th, 2017.
*Quotes are taken from an uncorrected ARC and may be subject to change before publication.