Mar. 26th, 2017

sawyl: (A self portrait)
I'd pre-ordered the latest in Seanan McGuire's InCrypted series such a long time ago, that I was slightly startled when Magic for Nothing dropped through my letterbox on Monday. The series, set in a world full of mythical creatures, follows the youngest members of the Price-Healy family as they protect the more unusual members of the ecosystem from both each other and the Covenant of St George, a para-military organisation dedicated to wiping out every creature that wasn't on Noah's Ark. Where previous books have focused on Verity and Alexander, the two older Price siblings, Magic for Nothing follows the youngest, Antimony Timpani Price, as she shoulders the burden placed on her by her family.

The story starts just as Chaos Choreography ends, with Verity fighting a giant snake on live television before issuing an ultimatum to the Covenant of St George: stay out of the US or face the wrath of the Price family. Faced with a need for drastic measures, the older members of the family decide to trade on Antimony's lack of resemblance to her sister — Annie is tall and dark where Verity and most of the others are short and blonde — by sending her to infiltrate the Covenant and to learn their plans for North America. After cautiously making her way to England, Annie, now calling herself Timpani Brown, appears on the doorstep of a Covenant safe house and sells them a sob story: she's the only surviving daughter of a carnival troupe killed by a swarm of telepathic wasps.

Luckily the Covenant's current Minister, Reginald Cunningham, buys what Antimony is selling and accepts her into the fold. But as his bookish grandson Leo explains, the Covenant has been drawing on the same family lines for generations and needs new blood, especially if it comes from the New World. Thanks to her upbringing, Annie flourishes in the Covenant's training program — currently under the care of her distant cousin Margaret Price — although she suffers rather from having to share a room with Leo's sister Chloe, who snores like a thunderstorm. After a mere couple of months, Minister Cunningham decides to send his new trainee on an uncover mission: to infiltrate a carnival that has been associated with a series of disappearances. Returning to the US, Annie travels to Wisconsin where Margaret, now her handler, and Robert Bullard, head of security at the training school, are on hand to keep a watchful eye on her.

Despite a rocky start when she hits things off the wrong way with the boss's grandson, Annie soon settles into live as a carnival girl, drawing on skill acquired when she lived with the Campbell Family Carnival to prove her worth. Once the initial mystery of the disappearances is resolved, Annie is able to settle her differences with Sam, the afore-mentioned grandson, sufficiently for the two of them to start running a trapeze act. Everything from this point on ought to be idyllic, but for the constant threat of the Covenant and their plans to purge the carnival by murdering everyone involved with it.

Magic for Nothing marks the first real appearance of Antimony Price, previously only seen through the eyes of her older siblings, and the character we see from our close third person view is very different to the one we might expect. Where Verity has only ever see a hyper-violent brat, Annie has actually been forced to behave as she has to survive as the youngest in a family where training starts at birth, where her older brother and sister have already formed a close bond, and where the risk of being discovered and destroyed by the Covenant of St George always looms large. Antimony also has a sharply contrasting view of Verity, seeing her as shallow and vain, willing to risk the entire family's safety just so that she can dance on a reality TV show — something that is almost as jaundiced as Verity's view of her. As she says herself, Antimony is actually the good daughter pretending to be the bad one; something that really snaps into focus at the end of the book where she has to make a series of painful sacrifices for the greater good of her mission.

The pacing of the story is more sonata form than three act, with a shortish opening that introduces Annie and the Covenant. Here Leo does much of the heavy lifting, explaining the organisation's backstory, bantering with Antimony in a way that makes him feel human and well rounded. The fact that he and Chloe are then largely absent from the narrative suggests to me that we're likely to see them both reappear in a more significant role. The second act set in the carnival is far more leisurely, with McGuire characteristically good on little details that really sell a setting. That I preferred the carnival to Verity's world of ballroom dance and reality TV probably says more about me than anything else.

Inevitably the finale changes everything irrevocably; something that McGuire signals by having Antimony anticipate the easy delights of an evening at a roller derby. And while the ending is bleak, it is true to Annie's character: a willingness to sacrifice everything for her family and her friends, even though she suspects they may not appreciate it.

We're also left with a few intriguing clues about the future: where will Antimony's magical abilities and pyrokinesis take her? Will her Healy blood draw back to the Covenant as some have predicted or will nurture will out over breeding? I think this is probably the key takeaway difference between the Healy-Price family and the organisation they rejected: the family have adopted members from everywhere including the likes of Sarah Zellaby, who may not be human but who is just as much a member of the family as anyone else; whereas the Covenant is all about breeding bloodlines — they differentiate between arranged marriages and love matches — to such a degree that they constantly treat Margaret Healy as a potential traitor because her grandparents decided to leave the organisation.

If it's not clear by this point, I loved Magic for Nothing: it was just the book I needed at this point in time. It features a cracking setting, effortless world-building, and an engaging and involving lead character. The slightly less frenetic pacing in the middle section really worked for me — I feel it gives the finale more punch — and I particularly like the dark ending that left me worried about someone I've really come to like. And no, it certainly didn't hurt that it featured a slightly misanthropic but ultimately rather charming character called Sam...

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