Kate Prospero is a former gang member turned cop, walking the beat in the worst part of Babylon. The Cauldron is an area filled with dirty magic users, potion addicts and other outcasts from normal society.
Discovering a crime committed by someone on a new, highly dangerous kind of potion catapults Prospero into the murky depths of a conspiracy, secondment to the MEA (Magic Enforcement Agency), and life-threatening situations.
Prospero is a standard urban fantasy protagonist – she’s tough, has a dark past and a vulnerable dependent. Shadowy figures on the wrong side of the tracks still have a hold on her, and she struggles with the darkness within her. What makes her different is that she isn’t the secret heir to unimaginable power: Kate is talented, but this conveys no particular advantage – there is no magic blood or power over Outsiders.
Initially, at least, she’s just a beat cop – passed over for promotion, having turned her back on the power she had amongst the criminal underworld. Once she starts working in slightly more elevate circles, she feels out of place and embarrassed. Nothing much sets her apart.
And that, of course, is what makes her interesting – the books are quite grounded, following over the shoulder of someone without power or influence. It’s a new perspective on a magical war: a personal, soldier-in-the-trenches viewpoint without grandeur or spectacle.
The world created by Wells matches the protagonist; it isn’t about a world-threatening catastrophe, or dark lords bent on total domination. Instead, the villains are motivated by money – the petty concerns and rivalries of inner-city crime. It’s a relatively original take on fantasy, and one I rather like, though the opportunity for dramatic showdowns is regrettably lessened.
Magic is interesting: it isn’t throwing fire or standard werewolves or even satanic rituals. Magic in Dirty Magic is an open and unashamed metaphor for drugs. Dealers sell potions that give temporary benefits but come with side effects and dependency; addicts to this “dirty magic” engage in petty crime and begging to feed the habit. In the wealthier sectors of the city, people can afford “clean” magic – made in controlled conditions with minimized ill-effects and an exorbitant price tag. In the slums, for lower but still hefty prices, illegal mages cook up tainted potions. The cops try to cut down on the trade, but there are always more users, always more suppliers.
It would come across as heavy-handed if it wasn’t so direct; there’s no attempt to make the comparison subtle – Wells is exploring drug culture through magic, and is entirely obvious about that fact. Prospero herself is a recovering addict – not to a specific potion, but to the high of cooking it. Magic isn’t really an ability in this book – it’s a commodity, a product, with a whole mess of associated effects on society.
Specifically, the magic used is alchemy – there is mention made of blood magic and sex magic, but not much detail on how those two branches work. There is a little more detail on the alchemy – it’s primarily scientific, but only the left-handed can get it to work, and there is an element of mysticism: Kate can “read” the ingredients of a potion through some kind of trance, and they show up in her mind as both the ingredient and as clues to the brewer.
Generally, I rather like my magic to be of the inborne and offensive sort – wizards who shoot fire from their hands, enchantresses who transform others into monstrous shapes. I’m a fan of the immediacy. Dirty Magic doesn’t do that. Magic is administered as potions or even patches – again, it is a created object, not an ability or a skill.
So I lose some of my joy in magical combat, but that’s fine: it fits the story better this way. I would like more information on how it works (and hopefully will get it in the next book), but I’m okay with the focus being on the society, and standard police work than it is on high mysteries and awesome power. It makes a change.
One other point bears mentioning – romance. There is a romantic undercurrent to the books – you can see prospects appearing, but they don’t go anywhere: it remains an undercurrent, again to be developed in later books. You can see why – too much clasping in strong arms would wreck the grim, practical tone of the book.
Overall, I rather liked it. I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely to my taste – my weakness is for heroic protagonists and melodrama. Dirty Magic isn’t really a fun book – it has a reasonably serious tone, and deals with serious issues. There isn’t much whitewashing or elision of difficult ideas in the book: if magic existed, everyone would want it. Dirty Magic explores that.
It’s a solid book: it does what it intends to very well. It isn’t like a lot of urban fantasy, but it is well worth reading – if you’re interested in a series that aims for a more serious, “real-world” look at magic, this is a good one to go for.