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Cascade coverWhen political intrigue meets magic in the midst of an environmental crisis in Rachel Rosen’s Cascade, image and its manipulation dominate all else. After a magical event known as “the Cascade” leads both to the rise of wizards and to the United States’ split into warring factions, the Canadian government is left with an enormous power vacuum to fill in North America. Protagonist Ian Mallory, a Canadian government minister, is known for being a powerful wizard, which puts him at odds with Canadians who distrust magic. In this context, the games of optics, image manipulation, and social henpecking take to the foreground against further impending magical catastrophe. The result is a strained effort to highlight how important the mundane can seem in the moment.

Ian Mallory has a reputation, alluded to time and time again in expository dialogue, as a powerful magician and statesman, guided by his magical precognitive ability. He makes decisions based on futures that he and only he can see. Unfortunately, this ability disrupts the team-based decision processes involved in bureaucracy, and Mallory spends much of his time controlling his image to appear less like an otherworldly being. Indeed, most of his reputation rests on the image that his intern and magical apprentice, Sujay, conjures for him—and which helps him appear to be a normal bureaucrat. At the same time, the kinds of illusions that Sujay creates hide the actual paper-shuffling and form-filling that a government minster’s office would do to get the job done, instead presenting an efficient enigma of a man who works with apparent ease.

When Sujay uses magic to create interference for Ian Mallory, she conjures a screen from the public so that officials can work in privacy. Some members of the public, including photojournalist Tobias Fletcher, view this screen with hostility due to the lack of transparency it produces. Tobias, his fellow journalists, and his wife begin scheming to create negative publicity around Mallory because they do not understand what a wizard does in political office—and they fear repercussions they cannot understand.

What does a wizard do with political power? Tobias becomes determined to find out—and, like any journalist, begins investigating through research. Because he is a photographer, Tobias keeps returning to the optics of the Mallory ministry and the way Mallory presents himself. But the magical powers Mallory uses (beyond precognition, that is) reveal themselves painfully slowly, since his efforts to control his own political narrative largely involve intimidation based on that image of an all-powerful schemer. He employs little other magic. Like a celebrity famous for being famous, Mallory’s greatest trick has been to fool the public into thinking him competent merely because of the illusion of competency.

When we see him politicking, Mallory considers all people around him as things to be used in his schemes. While he does have a cast of loyal staff members, his relationships seem to have been formed sometime in the past, and based on repeated assurances of Mallory’s greatness. Mallory brings in other magical people to be political fixers—like Jonah Augustine from Manitoba, whom he pulls off of an environmental protest—without establishing their skills or credentials beyond decades-long friendships. Surrounding oneself with like-minded aides might be standard, even preferable, for a government minister, but it is not a feat of magic. Success through social networking and optics is a disappointingly mundane use for magical powers when there are industries full of non-wizards who do the same thing. In fact, Mallory’s priorities align so well with those of traditional politicians that the Cascade can easily be forgotten. What the Cascade did remains vague in the public memory, and, with little exposition devoted to it, the roundabout ways in which Mallory refers to it make it feel more like an excuse for his leadership strategy than a real crisis.

More confusingly, despite his alleged managerial prowess, Mallory does not actually treat people in a way that suggests anyone would like him. Outside of his close colleagues, constituents and media do not really like Mallory as much as they fear him. Rumors swirl about wizards having the power to turn people into toads, and while Mallory never displays the power of transmogrification, the reputation about his cruelty persists. More importantly to a bureaucrat, Ian Mallory would be a terrible boss because he swears all the time and speaks rudely to employees and the public alike. Earthiness can be an endearing quality, but frequently being rude is not charming. Excuses explaining his background in a fishing village on the island of Newfoundland attempt to somehow brush aside his lack of good manners, which feels more than a little unsatisfying. Still more unsatisfying are Jonah and Sujay’s assurances that Mallory has looked into the future, seen destruction, and that his commands are the best way to avoid it. Mallory does not communicate fully with anyone, even his aides, but they follow his commands anyway. Good leaders often have followers who invest strong trust in them, but the evidence to encourage a trusting bond with Ian Mallory appears hard to find.

Despite agreeing to work in a veil of mystery, Mallory’s team holds a hypocritical view of those who do not share their political viewpoints. Mallory, Sujay, and Jonah each have a chip on their respective shoulder because they have magical powers that other people do not, but their attempts to empathize with people in their real humanity seem like mere suggestions. When the prime minister cheats on his wife, Mallory wants to cover up the story because the prime minister appointed him. Little thought is given to the feelings of his wronged wife, who would rather leave her marriage; Mallory works only toward the political end. While only Mallory can see that political end, Sujay, Jonah, and other magical characters nevertheless tend to roll their eyes at non-magical characters who have others concerns. For example, their foppish non-magical colleague, Eric, has an earnest belief in his political party—though he has no idea how Mallory works. He cannot use magic the way Mallory’s team can, and does not totally understand them because his attention tends toward either his parents, or his unrequited attraction to Lucy, Tobias Fletcher’s wife. And no one seems to know about his personal life beyond that crush—which his coworkers have witnessed at cocktail parties—because they disdain him for his naivete. In fact, the first time that Sujay remarks how close her coworkers, including Eric, feel to her, it’s because they all enjoy the same television soap opera about wizards: although Mallory and those who work in his office allegedly serve the public, they tend to prioritize their magical abilities above all else, even in the media they consume.

An office full of individuals invested in personal optics naturally spars often with journalists—and especially Tobias Fletcher. In contrast to the members of Mallory’s team, Tobias makes friends easily and even charms some of the minister’s own confidants, like Jonah. His affable nature further puts him at odds with Mallory, who ignores much of Tobias’s criticism by shielding his actual work with that magical cover. Undeterred, Tobias spends most of his time plotting and scheming to get Mallory out of office—with both his own coworkers, who fear Mallory for reasons never made clear, and his wife, who blames magic for a decline in her career. Magic, Lucy claims, has made people uninterested in opera or in hearing natural voices unmodified by magic.

While Mallory brushes aside such concerns as frivolous in the face of an impending disaster, the narrative rarely returns to the supposedly coming catastrophe. Jonah’s ex-wife, a scientist in Vancouver with whom he shares a daughter, encounters something magical under the ocean while operating a research submersible, but, even after this incident, Jonah remains in Ottawa to assist Mallory. Pulled away from British Columbia, Jonah traveled to the other side of a large country primarily to battle Tobias by leaking false information. That Jonah never furnishes his Ottawa apartment because he works so much shows that not even his personal life is more important than Mallory’s political maneuvering.

But the wizards’ focus on politics as means to avoid destruction places a greater emphasis on cocktail parties and photo ops than it does on, well, magic. These wizards invest their time in social narrative and media manipulation with a long scheme in mind to disarm the “enemy” before it even comes close; but in doing so, the enemy becomes paradoxically more distant. Despite all their talk of impending doom, these political operatives shred the exact nature of the Cascade that catalyzed the presence of wizards from recent memory, because it is discussed so little. If this is an effective strategy, then powerful, magical beings strain to defeat not an apocalypse but a likable, even empathetic, photographer. While Cascade basks in the game of political intrigue, the characters’ magical powers feel tucked away from the main narrative, and there’s only so long before they sink into irrelevance.

Aaron Heil lives with his wife in Emporia, Kansas, where he is an MLS candidate at Emporia State’s School of Library and Information Management. His prose has also appeared in the Cleveland Review of Books, Corvus Review, and elsewhere. He regularly blogs for The Game of Nerds.
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