Sep 21 2011 9:30am

Harry Potter’s Wand Doesn’t Have as Much of a Spark Anymore: Magic in Urban Fantasy

Harry Potter with his wandI’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.

Kindling the Moon by Jenn BennettIn 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 by Caitlin KittredgeStreet 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

Synde Korman talks music and books on her website Tombstone Tails, along with creating a line of literary jewelry on her etsy site Cemetery Cat Designs.

When she’s not herding cats or creating art, she works as a part-time bookseller. You can find her on twitter as @psynde.

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1. KMont
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.

Eh...don't you think that's simplifying the whole Harry Potter experience a little too much? I can't recall any instance in the Harry Potter books where the flick of a wand solved all the problems that arose. Sure, it might have done the deal for that moment, but it was never about magic being a simple solution to the overall problem and don't see how the books have treated it as such.

Like the books you mention for their different takes on magic - that's what Potter's version of magic was as well, just another take, but no less an exciting one.

Of the ones mentioned, I've only read Kittredge's Street Magic, which I absolutely loved, but I had trouble getting into and buying the magical aspects in book two.
Synde Korman
2. SyndeKorman
I love Harry, but I do think that magic was simple in the beginning of the series.. It got more difficult, but it still had the formula.
This post was talking mostly about the different kinds of magic used, not just the usage of magic. Specifically the usage of dark magic, but not by an evil character.. I was using the above books as examples not reviewing them.
Bastard Books
3. BastardBooks
Here some to consider:

Kara Gillian by Diana Rowland - similar to Kindling the Moon, she uses her blood to summon demons.

Alex Craft by Kalayna Price - witch who uses grave magic.

Dresden by Jim Butcher - he uses all kinds of magic, even some that are taboo.

Are we also including anti-heroes in the list?
Pamela Webb-Elliott
4. Spaz
Another to consider is the Hoodoo series by Adrian Phoenix. Incredibly dark, centering around a Cajun Hoodoo Kallie Riveiére and her mambo-in-training best friend. One of the most unique UF series out there.
Bastard Books
5. BastardBooks
Hmm, Hoodoo is one series I've been very curious of, putting it in my list.

Looking through my list and I find it surprising that I have not much more to offer.

Twenty Palaces by Harry Connolly, the good guys use magic from some books that are dangerous and banned .
6. Darkand Stormynight
Linda Wisdom's Jazz Tremaine series (bannished witches) and Tate Hallaway's Garnet Lacey series (witches AND vamps!) both use magic in fun and dangerous ways and Angie Fox's Demonslayer biker witches are a hoot!
Cerese Sanborn
7. flowerpower
Jaye Wells', Red-Headed Stepchild was an awesome book, as were the next two books in the series. Now I need to read the last three books in the series!! I love that Sabina has a twin sister that has gone through some of the same things that she has. I love the Harry Potter books, too.
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