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Magic Dark and Strange

November 19, 2020

If a person who enjoys the steampunk aesthetic and an idea of necromancy without any of the usual drawbacks wrote a short novel in which very little actually happens, the result would be Magic Dark and Strange, by Kelly Powell.

Powell enjoys seeing her young characters swan around the streets of a fictional city she names Invercarn in Victorian-style dress, drinking tea and addressing each other with formal titles. The heroine, Catherine (usually addressed as Miss Daly) is introduced in the course of her night duties at the newspaper, using a piece of type to cast a spell that makes it possible to wake up a recently dead person for one hour. The price is one hour of Catherine’s life, and her employer evidently has no qualms about asking this of his employees. Waking the dead seems to be more or less commonplace in the city, as it’s done when a loved one wants to say goodbye.

When her employer sends her to dig up a grave in order to find a magic “timepiece,” Catherine asks her new friend Guy, a clockmaker, to accompany her to the cemetery. After they find that the grave contains no timepiece, Catherine feels she must wake up the decomposed corpse to ask where it is. Although he is described as “dried out and skeletal,” she succeeds in making the body “flesh itself out—by nerve by sinew by vein by artery by organ.” Soon he sits up and makes their acquaintance and they name him Owen Smith. There’s some scintillating dialogue about why he can remember nothing of his life before:
“Perhaps it’s better if I don’t remember. I’ve no idea what I was like, truly. I might’ve been an awful person.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself, Mr. Smith,” Guy said. “I’m sure you were a perfectly decent fellow just as you are now.”

Guy and Catherine explore several spooky and abandoned places in their search for the timepiece, finally learning two important facts:

  1. Owen was killed to make the magical necromantic timepiece, a pocket watch, and bringing him back to life has used up all its magic.
  2. The watch was in Guy’s father’s shop all along—in fact, he was wearing it on the night he accompanied Catherine to dig up the grave.
    It turns out that Guy’s father has been “selling pieces of time for a while. Such business would’ve eaten away at his memories” so he didn’t even remember that he’d made a watch with the power to bring back the dead.

The bad guy—a big boss at the newspaper—thinks he can make lots of money from necromancy, saying to Catherine that her immediate supervisor “made a bit of coin from the farewell service, but this—this magic—is what people truly want. How much would someone pay to bring those dearest to them back to life?” We know better, though. Even Catherine asserts that “no one ought to use it.”

Luckily, the newspaper boss’ scheme is easily foiled, the police believe everything Guy and Catherine tell them, and Owen becomes Guy’s apprentice, while Guy and Catherine finally allow each other to use their first names. It’s a short and atmospheric slog to nowhere, through what seems to be danger but turns out to be a very tidily wrapped-up little excursion for a courting couple.

Like the necromantic spell being canceled out by the original sacrifice being brought back to life, any charm this story might have had is eroded by the slow revelation of its secrets.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2020 1:36 pm

    So, you quite liked this then, hmm? 😁

    • November 19, 2020 1:48 pm

      It didn’t even work for me as a soporific, as I try not to read anything spooky (even if the spookiness turns out to be merely atmospheric) right before bed.

  2. November 19, 2020 1:57 pm

    So no consequences for the necromancy? Did Catherine get all the years of her life back that she was made to use at her job? Did Guy not know the nature of the timepiece he had? Was the writing itself at least good even if the story was blah?

    • November 19, 2020 2:01 pm

      She did not get all the hours of her life back (it was just one hour at a time and Catherine is still in her teens). Guy did not know the nature of the timepiece. The writing was so lackluster that I struggled to find bits to quote to show you what it was like. There was a lot of the kind of writing I remember doing when I’ve tried to write stories, endless sequences of trying to move a character down a hallway and off to wherever she’s going next. For example: “From down the hall, a door cracked open. Footsteps sounded on the floorboards, and Owen appeared in the kitchen doorway.”

  3. November 19, 2020 5:44 pm

    Yikes, sounds like the concept and setting way overshadowed plot development and logic. Too bad it wasn’t even enjoyably predictable.

    • November 19, 2020 5:47 pm

      I didn’t find it enjoyable predictable but a teenager might.

  4. November 21, 2020 6:09 am

    Ouch! Yours is quite different from the publisher’s description. At least the book was short!

    • November 21, 2020 8:33 am

      Yes, it’s short. At the end it positions itself for a sequel but I think it’s okay to add this first one to my list of books in which necromancy never pays and call the list complete enough!

  5. November 23, 2020 3:41 pm

    That cover is lovely – too bad the book didn’t satisfy!

    • November 23, 2020 4:17 pm

      Like the cover, the prose is all style and little substance.

  6. November 30, 2020 1:04 pm

    You are fast! Already read this book! Sorry you didn’t enjoyed much. It was worth a try because of necromancy 😊

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