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Tabula Rasa

Black City

by Christian Read, Gestalt Publishing, 2013

Reviewed by Kyla Ward, 2013

"Immigrants beaten and used condoms outside my door, and cops beating children. Ask me why I wanted magic.

"And I am a sorcerer. The mediation between these worlds is my true work. Behind the atomising veil of my meditation, I see that I am righteous to set myself against the Old Man.

"But not fucking smart."

Black City coverThis is a novel about a magician. Not the teenage scion of a magical family or a boy who went to wizard school, or any of that shit. A practitioner. In this city, parts of which will feel terribly familiar to almost everyone, he's occupying more or less the position of a P.I. in your average noir, but it's a bit of an accident and this book isn't that either. You see, you can't investigate magic or even really read about it. You have to live it.

Not that life's been all that easy for Lark since he left the shelter of the Library -- one of the city's largest and best-organised covens. He lost a lover there, as well as a best friend (one of whom is no longer even remotely human) and there's a serious difference of opinion as to who betrayed who. But something's happening now that's got every cover, cult or indie thoroughly spooked and sniping at each other: there's even some totally mundane intelligence operatives poking around. There's no sitting on the sidelines; especially if, like Lark, you can't cross them due to an old geas. When even his psychic refuge, the Black City, is afflicted by graffiti that can drive the viewer insane, he's damn well going to call up his undead bodyguard, summon the Ultrascorpions and hit what he must, be it streets, books or people.

This book contains some of the best down-and-dirty occultism I've seen in an aeon, together with solid plotting and some just plain cool ideas. Chef magicians, stockbroker magicians, Christian magicians, and a halfway house for prognosticators. Street battles where the bullets are entwined seamlessly with the use of sigils and mental rotes, resulting in a unique and pulse-pounding pace. Cults that will turn your stomach with the sudden conviction that someone is actually doing this and probably quite close by.

Because this is your city, the place where you, the reader live. It's just that the dividing line is gone. The one that separates your idea of magic, its boy wizards and such, from the books and symbols, and rituals of everyday existence: "Street sign sigils, roadside runes, jailhouse jinxes, suburb spells, visible to my shaman trail." Erasing that line is a serious project, but here, the obliging Mr Read does the work for you. Through the intimacy of Lark's point of view, near-suffocating at times, and his intermittent lectures, that such things contain power becomes not just possible but inevitable. This sense of the reality of magic is the core of the book: expressed at times in sheer poetry.

"Water towers, whose gods are birds, humming with powers. Shop windows made crystal in the winter. Scrying pools of broken glass. Light reflects off them, gives up truth, until the spectrums splinter and the dried blood's just a bonus. The vending machines that howl. The digging machines that dig into kobold holds. Gambling machines summoning stochastic spirits. Computing machines, making dimensions from numbers. Espresso machines, pumping false-life into the deserve-to-be-dead."

The POV does bounce around to other characters, always at the most intriguing moments and with a refreshing lack of fear or favour. We are privy to the thoughts of the artist Wick, the assassin Ludo, the undead Bettina and even one very uppity scroll. They all have their reasons, are none of them stupid and are fighting to survive the magical storm they helped create. This makes Lark's own struggle just that much more poignant. It's a violent story, harsh and full of consequences, plus immortal lines such as "That's why necromancy will fuck with your head." The climax, as the remaining players attempt to literally out-think each other, is as nerve-shredding as any of the Old Man's spells.

This is Read's first novel but he's been writing professionally for a good, long while. As this earlier interview details, the bulk of his credits lie in comics and graphic novels such as The Watch, Dunwich and The Eldritch Kid: Whisky and Hate (which I review here). He has also worked on computer games, including the Secret World MMORG, and role-playing games before that. His Mythos Magic, an optional magic system for The Call of Cthulhu and other Chaosium games is an interesting attempt to interpret the mythos in terms of "conventional" western occultism, with stats to boot.

Black City does retread some established territory, in the battered but serviceable boots of urban fantasy. In particular, the reader of Kraken (China Miéville, 2010) may feel a frisson. But the protagonists of these two books could scarcely be further apart in personality and modus operandi, and the ambiance of the two cities is as different as the plot. For a place that really could be anywhere, Black City is underpinned by a vast amount of research and wildly multicultural to boot, these being universal traits of Read's work. It is also comparatively short and leaves a number of plot threads hanging. But they are the right plot threads. Will future tales resolve Lark's personal problems and his essential, magician's dilemma? We are but recent acquaintances but I'm already prepared to say, that would take some serious magic.

At the time of this review, Black City is available only as an e-book from Gestalt Publishing. Hopefully, this will change in time, as the re-read value, especially of Lark's occult musings is high and the cover art by Justin Randall simply deserves to be printed. As Lark says, "The right book bites you, seduces and tattoos you." If you're looking for something to stretch your mind as well as giving you a good read, this may be the right book indeed.

 

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