I love modern fantasy. Not things like “Vampire romance” so much, but things that bring that hint of magic back to a mundane world. I love stories that take things like witchcraft and fae folk and mysticism and place it into a real world context. I especially love it when it’s not even sequestered in some far away land hidden by land and acknowledges that there are people who don’t care about any rules that say they’re supposed to keep it all on the down low.
Left Hand Path, by T.S. Barnett is such a book. In it, you find the standard “we should hide our abilities” folk, but also examples of an entire undercity of people who frankly don’t care. The only thing that keeps them in check is the rest of the lamer good guys that want to hold them back. Or at least, that’s how they see things. Besides, nobody likes a helicopter parent, and that’s what all these law-abiders act like. Worse, it’s not like their enforcement of said rules are gentle. Who needs an old fashioned witch trial when you’ve got mental torture chambers?
Of course you’ve got your good guys too, which have perfectly viable reasons for not wanting the others to step out of line. Mostly because when they do go rogue, it tends to involve taking advantage of or outright hurting someone. I’m sure these guys wonder why people can’t break the rules with a benign yet mind blowing awesome charity concert or something. It’d make their lives much easier. They’re just trying to keep some relative peace in the world. Most of them genuinely want to do good.
The book, naturally, has a representative of each camp, and the main character finds herself being pulled in both directions. Cora is new to all the magic stuff (and without an en masse propaganda institute that spirits you away from any one remotely influential you’ve ever known before puberty) she’s left to try and make her own path through the magical world and it’s rules. She’s also older than your standard child learning of another realm, so she brings different ways of perceiving the goings on around her. Namely, she questions things.
She’s not entirely unbiased when she starts exploring however, her tutor (or Mentor, as this first book in the series is called) happens to be one of the most notorious magical criminals on the list. Probably a household name among people who follow the magic world’s equivalent of John Walsh.
It’s a reputation he’s earned through years of hard work. Granted, he never tried to take over the world, but the trail of victimized and dead he’s left in his path probably puts many serial killers to shame. This is one of the great aspects of this book. Many magic and fantasy novels tend to take the issue of victims kind of lightly. Not intentionally, but because once you get to ‘world conquering baddie’ it’s just… presumed you have a host of victims under your belt. No one really goes into the effect of the climbing body count.
This book’s villian, Nathan, is less magical Hitler and much more mystic Robert Maudsley (the real life inspiration for Hannibal Lecter). Still decidedly evil, but on a somehow more personal level. Likely because he personally commits the crimes himself. He kills people, not because of a vendetta or paranoid conviction or master race plan, but simply because at the time it became prudent. This blurs the lines a little between the usually high contrast good/evil presented in other stories. After all, what’s the difference in someone who kills because it’s expedient and the good guy who takes people out because they ‘had no other choice’?
Speaking of wayward good guys, in the other corner we find Elton, carrying on with an almost Ahab like obsession with catching the notorious killer. The Batman to Nathan’s Joker, Elton goes not only out of his way to hunt down the villain, but off the books, beyond the law, and outside anything like a normal life he’s ever built to be the one to take this baddie down. He’s genuinely good in a very “Sometimes I want to kick you in your perfect teeth” way, and when he sees Cora under Nathan’s wing, he decides that he must be the mother duck to her duckling and protect her at all costs and treat her well to show her the Good Ways of magic.
Just kidding, he places a curse on her to get Nathan to cooperate with him. Yep, he’s not above that.
Actually, he kind of does both. He’s truly at odds throughout the book, and it makes for some delicious story telling, as well as ample fodder for Nathan to taunt him with. If that’s not enough, it’s… kind of his fault that the story even happens in the first place. Sort of. You’ll have to read to find out.
I love the inclusion of various cultures in this story, and the way they’re so woven in to Nathan’s history. It makes sense that someone like him would have such a colorful history and it gives the whole thing it’s own unique flavor, aside from the awesome dynamic that is Nathan and Elton trying to work together and Cora trying to survive it. I love the stories of Nathan’s past partners, and I wonder what tales there might be in there. Lots of heartache for sure, but lots of whirlwind encounters as well. How many more stories are in his past? How many stories are in Cora’s future as his protege? I don’t know, but I’m excited to follow the trail and enjoy the ride.