Dark Magic: Tor hardcover, May 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Kristin Duvall & Charles Roff. James Swain has written some fourteen mysteries and thrillers, including the Tony Valentine and Jack Carpenter series. He has also self-published non-fiction about his magic hobby, which features prominently in Dark Magic. As far as I can tell, Dark Magic is his first foray into fantastic literature.
Peter Warlock is a successful stage magician. One secret to his success is that he really does have psychic abilities. Peter is a member of a secret group of psychics who use their talents to foresee and prevent crimes. In the opening scene, Peter looks four days into the future and sees everyone in Times Square gasping and falling dead, while a strange dark figure watches with satisfaction. The evil man from his vision then appears at Peter's next performance, brandishing a knife, then vanishing. The police arrive, including an attractive woman officer who was on the scene when Peter's parents died, and Peter learns that they are already hunting for his mysterious man.
Finding Poe: Cerebral Books trade paperback, March 2012, 205 pages, uncredited cover art. Leigh M. Lane's self-published novels include The Hidden Valley, World-Mart, and Myths of Gods. She has also had a short story in the anthology Mirages, edited by Trent Zelazny.
Finding Poe is a gothic novel set on the East Coast in the 19th Century. According to the back of the book, it will involve the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, but through 25 pages he has yet to appear onstage. Our protagonist is Karina. In the first two pages, she is traveling to Baltimore, presumably to meet Poe. The rest of the opening 25 pages consists of a sustained flashback to when she first arrived in America. She and her husband Brantley came from England to become lighthouse-keepers, partly because Brantley had involved them in some scandal, partly because he had an odd fascination with this particular New England lighthouse.
At once, strange things began happening to Karina. She heard disturbing noises. She saw a head roll up in the surf, but Brantley didn't believe her. She rowed to shore and became lost; when she told a local couple that she lived in the lighthouse, the man responded by swinging an axe at her, with unpleasant results for his wife.
The Battle: The first round of the Battle of the Books is all about grabbing the reader's attention. Neither of these two books has grabbed me yet.
For Dark Magic, the trouble is that the writing isn't pulling me in, on a sentence-by-sentence level. Here, for example, is the protagonist coming home:
Peter climbed the steps to his brownstone. The downstairs lights were burning brightly. Liza had stayed up. A warm drink was waiting, and something good to eat. She was wonderful that way, and made him happy in ways that no one had ever managed to before.Too many uses of "was/were" and not enough detail——"something good to eat"? Why not tell us what she made? More importantly, if Swain wants to give us a protagonist deeply in love, he needs to find a more interesting way to show that. To his credit, in the following scene, Swain doesn't just tell us Peter is a great magician; he describes Peter's act in sufficient detail to convince us. But so far his characters' internal lives are not receiving that same level of attention.
My problem with Finding Poe is Leigh M. Lane's persistent failure to convey key information driving the tale. For example, toward the end of the opening 25-page section, the first-person protagonist attributes her confusion in a conversation to "her incomplete grasp of English." But there has been no prior mention of this. (I actually thought she was from England, but looking back I see there was a brief mention of her German origin, which I had missed.) The woman has just moved to America, so her inability to communicate is going to be a major issue; moreover, she is our first-person narrator, so we must have some explanation of how, despite the language barrier, she managed to write this book.
On a broader level, while I generally like the gothic feel of the narrative, Lane has not done enough to give me a sense of where the story of Finding Poe is heading. Is this a haunted (light)house story? Or some other kind of ghost story? Or perhaps more of a fantasy, or a mystery, or what? The title suggests that Edgar Allan Poe is the main attraction, but I have no inkling after 25 pages of how he plays into the story. The only (apparent) mention of Poe was on the second page of the book, when the protagonist said she was delivering a sealed envelope to a strange man in Baltimore. A few more hints of what kind of a story we're reading, what's at stake, and how it involves Poe would have helped Lane pull me in more quickly.
In contrast, with Dark Magic, I have a good sense of where James Swain is taking me. We know from the opening scene that the main characters are part of a secret organization that uses magic and clairvoyance to do good works, and they have learned that some dark force is orchestrating an awful catastrophe in Manhattan. I know what's at stake. At the sentence level, Leigh M. Lane writes as well as James Swain, but after 25 pages, Swain is the one who has convinced me he has a story to tell.
THE WINNER: Dark Magic by James Swain
Dark Magic advances to the second round, to meet either The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi or Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth.
To see the whole bracket, click here.