4 out of 5 stars for Magic Burns (Kate Daniels #2) by Ilona Andrews.
“Down in Atlanta, tempers – and temperatures – are about to flare…
As a mercenary who cleans up after magic gone wrong, Kate Daniels has seen her share of occupational hazards. Normally, waves of paranormal energy ebb and flow across Atlanta like a tide. But once every seven years, a flare comes, a time when magic runs rampant. Now Kate’s going to have to deal with problems on a much bigger scale: a divine one.
When Kate sets out to retrieve a set of stolen maps for the Pack, Atlanta’s paramilitary clan of shapeshifters, she quickly realizes much more at stake. During a flare, gods and goddesses can manifest – and battle for power. The stolen maps are only the opening gambit in an epic tug-of-war between two gods hoping for rebirth. And if Kate can’t stop the cataclysmic showdown, the city may not survive…”
(Read more here.)
I reviewed Magic Bites, the first book in the Kate Daniels series, in 2015. I gave it 5 out of 5 stars.
The second book in the series, Magic Burns, has a unique narrative voice that is both entertaining and engaging, and rich with personality. It also benefits from a structured and well-paced plot, memorable characters, and detailed world-building. Arguably action-heavy, with the crux of the plot hinging on a final big leagues clash, it nevertheless doesn’t scrimp on character development, or on admirably varied dialogue, as Andrews’ characters display a variety of approaches to their common language, based on experience, species and social factors, to name but a few. Additionally, while Magic Burns is rich with ever-popular biting one-liners, the novel isn’t a thoughtless supernatural romp with little to no plot, and an overabundance of sexual tension. In truth, it is the opposite, with an engaging vibrancy that it ensures that it is eminently readable.
The plot of Magic Burns hinges on the existence of “flares”, surges of magic during which modern technology is unable to function, and the unexplained and inexplicable has a tendency to pop unpredictably in and out of existence. This is more or less business as usual for the characters in this series, until these flares stop occurring in a vaguely predictable sequence, and, as well as fading in and out quickly enough to cause havoc, start building towards a destructive pinnacle.
Anything supernatural is strongly affected during the flares, strengthened both beyond reason and their normal capacity. It follows from this that those individuals that are already the strongest of their kind are rendered nigh-unbeatable. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the fallout is negative: a number of nasty individuals take the opportunity presented to consolidate their assets, and leverage a hostile relocation from one world – or plane of existence – to another. Their intentions are neither good nor honourable, and the ramifications significant.
The flares highlight the uneasy tension between technology and magic that is central to the Kate Daniels series. Instead of a vaguely functional harmony between the two, a familiar approach to urban fantasy, Andrews’ series takes place in a universe that is caught uncomfortably between them, effectively wavering on a precarious knife edge between two strong opposing forces. When magic reigns supreme, technology falters and fails, rendered obsolete. In some instances, technological devices are even permanently destroyed. When magic fades in turn, technology springs back to life. This has an impact on the characters: living (and flourishing) in that kind of environment requires the ability to adapt to a changing situation at a moment’s notice, and to develop skills that aid or at least do not actively hinder survival in a world belabored by powerful and unpredictable forces.
Characterisation in Magic Burns is equally detail-oriented. It is made clear that Andrews’ shapeshifters suffer from occupying the easy precipice between human and animal, and often struggle to restrain their toothier sides, especially during the flares. The failure to do so is widely considered to be indicative of weakness in the ‘shifter community, while the opposite is suggestive of potential leadership quality. This in turn feeds into aspects including the historical treatment and discrimination of shapeshifters, both from outsiders and other kinds of shapeshifters, and the immediate and the long-term ramifications for Magic Burns’ main characters. In bringing her characters to life, Andrews establishes a range of political, economic and social factors likely to have an impact on their lives, and introduces engaging and sympathetic themes such as found families.
The protagonist, Katie Daniels, can, at first glance, be mistakenly interpreted as a one-dimensional “strong” female character: she isn’t in a long-term relationship, she doesn’t have children, and if some nasty beastie tries to hurt her, she’ll hurt it right back, ready and willing to leave a lasting impression. However, Kate is also empathetic, supportive and loyal, and still in the process of dealing with the significant emotional impact of her last relationship. Further, her commitment to fighting the nasty things that go bump in the night is at least partially motivated by her desire to protect the vulnerable. She is by no means allergic to feelings, and her strength comes from emotional depth and compassion.
In Magic Burns, Kate comes across a vulnerable young girl whose mother is missing. Kate looks into the mother’s disappearance as well as taking the girl under her wing, going to considerable lengths to protect her from anything and everything that might wish her harm, including the girl’s own unwise and somewhat blinkered fondness for a boy. This is a true, realistic balance that reiterates Kate’s lack of practical experience without suggesting that she is too tough or emotionally isolated to care about a child left all alone in the world, or that her competency and strength equals a lack of maternal instincts.
On a different note, I don’t really enjoy urban fantasy novels of any kind that expand their repertoire to include deities, as happens in Magic Burns. If the Next Big Threat is a worryingly powerful deity, then it seems to me that little space has been left to make the next an even bigger deal. In addition, it can only reach the point at which the relatively unprepared characters typically discover hitherto unknown super-secret superpowers, or unlock a quirk in their genetic make-up that guarantees their success in the latest manifestation of a high noon shootout – which is a bit too predictable. It works to some extent in Magic Burns, as Kate’s ongoing journey to discovering the full extent of her abilities is a strongly established plot point, but it was too obvious an ending to an otherwise exciting and intriguing narrative.
I enjoyed reading Magic Burns. Engagingly written, it has great characters, an interesting plot, and excellent world-building elements, all of which are symptomatic of a keen attention to detail, and admirable storytelling. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be predictable, and the conclusion of the novel felt inevitable. Additionally, I was disappointed by the lack of diversity in some areas – while a multitude of healthy and less-so heterosexual relationships are represented, there is little in-depth exploration of alternatives.
4 out of 5 stars.