Following up the Sunburst Award for Canadian Fantasy Literature winner Indigo Springs (2009), Blue Magic is a tale of our own world gone very much awry. A. M. Dellamonica's diptych has been dubbed "ecofantasy" by some, an interesting label that does not quite hold up to scrutiny, despite the book touching on some big environmental questions.
The scenario is this: pressurized magic has burst out through a well from another dimension and into Oregon, and is behaving like an otherworldly oil spill, irrevocably contaminating the environment. It transforms everything it touches, creating glowing blue forests of giant trees and turning people into animals. Magician Astrid Lethewood leads an underground community of volunteers trying to control the spill, while keeping raw magic out of the hands of two warring factions: the Alchemites—power-hungry followers of self-proclaimed goddess Sahara Knax—and a cult of witch-burners called the Fyremen.
Not having read the first volume, I came completely fresh to the world Dellamonica has built. This wasn't at all a barrier to understanding what was going on—rather, the early chapters went too far in the opposite direction. Near the beginning, police officer Will Forrest is interviewed about the outbreak of magic, in what amounts to an awkward recap of key events from Indigo Springs:
"You saw the lawn and trees growing to giant size, the alchemized bees and songbirds attacking police?"
"Yes, from the comfort of my living room. I saw Sahara Knax escape on a flying carpet. Then the house collapsed." (p. 13)
The same treatment is given to magic and its workings. The opening paragraph is tantalizing, promising an eerie, elusive kind of magic:
The gate had been stalking Will Forest ever since he arrested his wife. . . . It turned up on his peripheral vision in restaurants, TV stations and shops. An archway of brambles, seven feet high, it pushed through drywall and hardwood with apparent ease. Its slats were a blue-tinged wood; its handle was a curved ram's horn. (p. 11)
However, this soon gives way to more over-telling:
"How much do you remember about vitagua?" she asked.
"Let's see . . . magic used to be a living cell. It allowed people to bend the rules of nature."
"Right," she said.
"Centuries ago, when the Inquisition began burning witches, these cells—"
"Magicules, right, were driven into the unreal and they became vitagua." (p. 32)
From the creaking exposition to the somewhat silly jargon, this is a disappointingly bland follow-up to an intriguing hook. There are four points of view—Will, Astrid, Astrid's father Ev Lethewood, and U.S. Marshall Juanita Corazón—and Dellamonica tends to re-explain events with every perspective shift. I found that this hindered rather than encouraged immersion in the story.
It was certain characters that kept me turning pages. Dellamonica has created a cast of ordinary, relatable people, and then applied almost unbearable pressures to them, from inside and out. Take Juanita: introduced as an observer to Sahara's trial, she's soon revealed to be an unwilling double agent, passing "chantments" (magical objects) to Sahara in an attempt to protect her own family; her life becomes a impossible juggling act, with physical security, professional integrity, personal morals, and the safety of loved ones all up in the air.
She's also one of several characters in the book who fall under the LGBT banner, without being treated especially differently because of it—being gay is simply part of who she is. Besides Juanita, we get a gay male couple, bisexual Astrid, and transgender Ev. Thanks to the magical explosion, Ev is now able to have a male body—although Dellamonica does not fall back on magic as an excuse to ignore the potential complexities of transitioning as a middle-aged parent. I'm not in a position myself to assess how successful a portrayal he is, but I certainly believed in him and overall found the strong showing of queer characters—and the normalization of their queerness—refreshing.
By comparison, I found Will and Astrid much less compelling. It's suggested that they have a brief but intense history, having previously met when he was interrogating her about the magical outbreak, so perhaps I'm missing a powerful connection that was established in Indigo Springs. But I never really bought their relationship, not least because Astrid foresees it, and their subsequent romance as they play catch-up with the prophecy feels a little forced as a result.
I admit that a personal distaste for predestined romance plots played a part in this reaction, and readers with more time for star-crossed lovers may feel differently. My real problem with Astrid, though, is that she spends more on-page time thinking about Will than about the billions of lives she is affecting by letting magic seep across the world.
Her plan is to spread the contamination slowly at first, to minimize the impact when the magical well inevitably bursts. The idea of magic as pollution is interesting, as are the questions it raises: how can you contain that kind of massive damage to the environment, and, when it turns out that you can't, how does the world cope with it? I wanted to see the book spend a little more time tackling these questions, and I found it troubling that what it ends up showing is how a small group of Americans, who caused the disaster in the first place, decide to cope with it on the world's behalf.
Which is not to say that global impact isn't discussed, but that the human elements—how communities will be affected, what other countries might want—are glossed over. This is part of why the "ecofantasy" tag falls flat for me, because the human systems that are inextricably entwined with ecosystems don't get a look in, and the slow contamination of the world is made to sound seductively pretty, almost benign:
Katarina's ecologists had pinpointed a number of remote, inaccessible wildlands, prime sites for contaminations. Choosing one, [Astrid] stepped out into the humidity of the Laotian jungle. Ambling through the woods, she let the substance of her vitagua body turn to mist, leaving the barest traces on flowers and vines. (p. 234)
Astrid does spend a paragraph thinking about disaster prevention, with solutions including "spotlights to lead people to safety, something to calm panicked animals, a horn whose shriek would drive people inland before the tsunamis could take them" (p. 237)—essentially herding them. Despite wanting to save the world, she doesn't give a thought to what most of its inhabitants might have to say about the matter, or whether they might want to organize their own response.
She also makes decisions on behalf of those trapped in the other dimension: the Roused, introduced as "Native Americans who'd fled the European conquest" (p. 56). The Roused do have voices and a subplot of their own, with a struggle for leadership between pragmatic Eliza and firebrand Teoquan. Teoquan is painted as hotheaded and bloodthirsty, with a vicious sense of humor that includes pointlessly and unrelentingly mis-gendering Ev; still, I can't help but side with him when he sneers at Astrid's white savior complex:
So I'm supposed to let her dick around as she pleases, dishing out freedom by the teaspoon? (p. 159)
Through Teoquan, at least, the novel does show cultural conflicts of interest, but having them play out in the imaginary world of the unreal seems a convenient way to sidestep the overwhelming US-centricity to be found throughout the rest of the narrative.
Magical devices allow the characters to cross the world in seconds, but despite all the hopping from location to location, the pervasive sense that this is really a story about America prevents the story from achieving the breadth it attempts. It taps into a pertinent liberal Western anxiety—the impact that energy and material consumption are having on the planet--but its characters' attitudes to the problem are also typical of the liberal West: a mixture of desperation to fix the world and a gung-ho conviction that they know best how to do it. The ending drives this home, when Astrid and Will learn what the personal consequence of their destruction is to be. In an exchange that I dearly wanted to read as ironic, but which is not presented as such by the text, they are told:
"You two killed thousands on Boomsday. You can't be Americans anymore."
It hurt, strangely: the sense of rejection bit deep. (p. 379)
Ultimately, despite some attention-grabbing concepts, images and characters, Dellamonica's world left me more uncomfortable than anything else. Blue Magic attempts grand drama on a global scale, with close personal focus, but the latter often comes at the expense of the former; it centers on a metaphor that, for all its resonance, never quite moves beyond being a cool idea.
Tori Truslow grew up in Bangkok and is a graduate of the Warwick MA in Writing. She currently lives in the UK where she writes and runs workshops for young people and adults. Her fiction has sold to Polluto, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Paraxis, and the Speculative Ramayana Anthology, and she has reviewed for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Sabotage Reviews, and the New York Review of Science Fiction.
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