Dirty Magic

Dirty Magic By Carol Hughes [LibrarythingAmazon]

When Joe follows the strange girl called Katherine who’s been sent to fetch him, he finds himself in a land torn apart by war, where the people live in fear of secret police and horrifying machines capable of immense destruction. With Katherine and a blind guide named Spider, Joe must make his way across the perilous no man’s land to the capital city in order to find his little sister, Hannah – for this is the land where sick children go, and Hannah is deathly ill. But as Joe finds himself awash in this land’s secret history and deceptive politics, two questions arise: Just who is behind this war, anyway? And is Hannah the one who needs saving – or is Joe?

I’m not really sure where the title of this book came from. I mean, I placed it in “Portal Fantasy” because Joe gets whisked away to a different world, and there are elements that suggest magical intervention at times, like the fact that it’s been raining since the war started and stops raining when the war stops, but other than that it’s really more of a steampunky sci-fi, hence the secondary categorization in “Apocalyptic/Dystopian Science Fiction” (well, it’s a dystopia that eventually utopifies itself). But I digress.

As Joe and his companions attempt to cross no man’s land, they are beset by a variety of deceptively-harmless-looking tanks called Goliaths, which fire a disproportionately huge burst of flame at the slightest noise. Dirty Magic is like that: it’s a serviceable, unassuming story, and then wham! the ending hits you right between the eyes. As a reader, I loved it; as a reviewer, it’s a pain in the tuchas, because it’s the best aspect of the book, and I can’t talk about it. Woe.

The characters are straight out of central casting, from the Everykid hero (his name is Joe, for crying out loud!) to the wise blind mentor with the shadowy past to the sleazy politician villain. However, Hughes deploys them well, so I have no complaints to make. I quite enjoyed Spider and Katherine, and was pleased that Katherine was allowed to be very much a three-dimensional character without any nonsensical (and inappropriate at her age) romantic elements tacked onto her character, which so many books nowadays tend to do.

My main gripes were with missing details and unresolved plot elements. For example, one of the good guys dies, and there are absolutely no consequences – no one mourns him, and it doesn’t throw a single hitch in the good guys’ plans. What was the point, then? Another semi-spoilery quibble is show

My main question, though, concerns the world itself. Children who are deathly ill in our world are taken to the Dirty Magic world by fetchers, underage gofers for the army; then they must make their way to the capital city where, ostensibly, they are supposed to go through one of three arches in the city’s library and either return, healthy, to their bodies, or die. But why? What is the purpose of this world? How did the people who aren’t children from our world get there? The villain suggests that he himself was a sick child from our world, but that conversational thread was never resolved. What is the underlying logic here? There simply wasn’t enough explanation of what was, to me, a really interesting concept.

All told, Dirty Magic gets three and a half cupcakes. It wasn’t particularly outstanding, for the most part, but it was a good idea that was executed well, and I enjoyed it.

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