Thursday, January 31, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Round :: Dark Magic by James Swain vs. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The second round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books continues with Dark Magic by James Swain against The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will advance to the semifinals.

Dark Magic: Tor hardcover, May 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Kristin Duvall & Charles Roff. Dark Magic reached the second round by defeating Finding Poe by Leigh M. Lane in the first round.

In the opening 25 pages, we met Peter Warlock, a successful stage magician with genuine psychic abilities. Peter had a vision of mass deaths in Times Square, somehow caused by a strange dark man. That man proceeded to show up at Peter's next performance and try to stab him. In the next 25 pages, Peter consults a ghost to learn that the strange man is associated with the Order of Astrum, which uses dark magic for unknown ends. Peter realizes the Order of Astrum was responsible for his parents' deaths when he was a boy. Meanwhile, the dark man is busy murdering one of Peter's psychic friends (who really should have seen it coming, eh?).

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities reached the second-round with a lop-sided win over Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth.

Most of the first 25 pages of The Drowned Cities followed Tool, a bioengineered man-beast who was a character in Bacigalupi's award-winning book Ship Breaker, in a riveting pursuit by soldiers through a ruined East Coast. The next 25 pages focus on Mahlia, a young doctor's assistant. The locals are prejudiced against Mahlia because she is a "castoff," the child of a Chinese officer abandoned to her fate when the Chinese peacekeepers pulled out of North America. She is missing a hand, courtesy of one of the many local militias. We also meet Mahlia's sardonic (and only) friend Mouse, who lost his family to another warlord's patrol.

The Battle: Through 50 pages, James Swain is doing a solid job up building up tension in Dark Magic. The business tying the current mystery into the death of Peter's parents feels a bit contrived, but the scene where the dark man murders another psychic is carried out well. I particularly liked that the man was genuinely surprised to hear of the prediction he would orchestrate a mass murder. This suggests that the antagonist will have his own story arc, apart from Peter's, which is nice.

That said, the opening sections of Dark Magic cannot match the narrative drive of the first chapters of The Drowned Cities. The scene with Tool was an outstanding action sequence, more than enough to pull the reader into the story, allowing Bacigalupi some time to develop his future history through the eyes of Mahlia. Mahlia's initial characterization is effectively done. I'm very interested to learn more about how the downfall of the United States occurred, and what lies ahead for Mahlia and Mouse. Most of all, I can't wait to get to the next Tool chapter.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities advances to the semifinals, to take on Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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