I’ve just finished reading a spate of urban fantasy books where magic was a crucial element to the plot. Not just a causal casting of a love spell, but a more esoteric kind of magic where summonings and bindings run wild.
Is this a new untapped market for the genre? Or nothing new? Let’s take a look.
In the past, magic was handled in a “Harry Potterish” way (don’t get me wrong, I love Harry): The protagonist had a problem, they would wave their wand or hands say a few words—problem solved. Dark Magic was only done by evil beings setting themselves up as overlords.
More recently, however, magic has taken a darker forms, done by main characters as way to exist. Banishments and Summonings are regular business, both in Urban Fantasy and PNR. It never goes completely right, either, which again is a new take in the genre. No quick fixes for these mages.
In Jenn Bennett’s debut Kindling the Moon (which straddles the fence between UF and PNR), protagonist Arcaida Bell comes from a long line of magicians —and not the Criss Angel kind. She doesn’t use her magic in everyday life, only when absolutely necessary. And when she does, all hell breaks loose—quite literally. It’s never a complete problem solver, mostly just a very quick band-aid to help in the immediate situation. Bennett’s debut novel mines deep in the magic vein, it’s chock full with earthbound demons, a hellfire club and a Tiki bar, not to mention magic galore.
In Stacia Kane’s Downside Series, Chess Putnam does magic for a living. She’s a church witch, a very accomplished one, and yet often when she does magic it goes awry. This is one of the things I love about this series, the magic! It’s dark and gritty and rarely goes right. The author has gone to great pains to research esoteric principles. She doesn’t offer an easy fix, more of a way to a resolution, often involving psychopomps (entities who escort souls to the afterlife). This series really shows us the good and bad of magic usage. Some of Stacia’s villains are magically terrifying. And I don’t scare easy.
Jaye Wells has a whole different take on magic; her books are about vampires and a forked peni demon, yes, but again, her magic is very carefully researched. Most of the spells employed have a dark esoteric element; one of my favorites is her usage of Cthonic magic. This often involves ritual sacrifice or the denizens of hell in the Greek Pantheon. Add snappy dialogue and a less-than-serious take on the genre, and it’s a whole lotta fun. A highly recommended wild ride.
Street Magic, the first book in Caitlin Kittredge’s Black London series, starts out with some fantastically dark magic—black magic, and it’s totally fun. Kittredge hooks you right off the bat. Jack Winter is a mess, but such a loveable mess that you can’t help but love him. Jack knows all kinds of seedy characters (in fact, he is a seedy character!) and you get to meet all of them in the realm Winter inhabits called the Black.
Having dark magic appear as more than just a secondary thought in PNR/UF is an exciting twist on what is already a challenging genre. But as any PNR/UF fan will tell you, the glut of certain topics requires the authors to change or risk the chance of the genres collapsing within themselves. This new darker expansion is even spreading to the literature genre, where books such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Deborah Harkness’s Discovery of Witches included magic, and are very popular. And now Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus is the latest hot buzz book to include the trope.
More books with dark hoodoo:
Dante Valentine series by Lilith St.Crow
Storm Born by Richelle Mead (Eugenie Markham series)
The Hallows series by Kim Harrison
When she’s not herding cats or creating art, she works as a part-time bookseller. You can find her on twitter as @psynde.