Alastair Stone is a mage in a mundane world, teaching “occult studies” at Stanford to make a living and remaining mostly free of emotional entanglements—that is, until his old friend and fellow mage Walter calls him from England and asks for a favor. Could Alastair please take on an apprentice mage? Ethan Penrose is the son of an old friend who died long ago, but because Ethan’s mother is very ill, Ethan can’t apprentice with Walter in England. Stone, against his personal desires, agrees.
Meanwhile, Alastair’s friend and university colleague Tommy asks him for a favor. His dotty old aunt Adelaide is apparently hearing things in her mansion up on Los Gatos. Would Alastair please pretend to be a “ghost-hunter” and put her mind at ease? Alastair agrees. But it turns out that Adelaide isn’t imagining things after all. Something big is in her big house. It is angry, and it wants out.
And meanwhile, three “black” mages, who call themselves “The Three,” are marauding around San Francisco using magic like an addictive drug and torture device. A confluence of events brings Alastair, Ethan, The Three, and Adelaide’s haunted house into a conflict that our magic-ridden hero must resolve. As you can see, the book makes some big promises with this strong set up.
But it has trouble keeping them, for the most part because it doesn’t do justice to its characters. Alastair, Ethan, The Three—they lack the necessary charisma to carry a book forward, especially a book this long. The Three are cartoonish, diabolical bad guys with no depth. Ethan, the poor dear, is suckered over and over by the honeytrap that the female member of The Three lays for him. By the end, his weakness for her magical sexiness becomes silly. It’s also insulting to men: surely no young man is so blinded by lust that he can’t see through an evil plot as transparent as hers.
And our hero, Alastair, spends the book missing gimmes in the plot—if he’s such a powerful mage, why can’t he make such obvious connections? He even ponders why so many things are coincidentally happening at the same time. The answer, of course, is that they aren’t coincidences.
Most disappointing is how undeveloped the four female characters are. Adelaide is the classic dotty old lady. Ethan’s mom, after a brief scene in the beginning, spends the rest of the book invisibly in the hospital, merely an excuse for Ethan to make bad decisions. Then there is the female black mage who uses sex to trap the vulnerable Ethan—a derivative evil witch trope as old as Salem. And lastly there is Alastair’s long-suffering girlfriend Megan, who doesn’t want a relationship, gives him his space, and puts up with his lies without asking questions. Who is this “low-maintenance” paragon?
The book is well written—technically speaking, the author is a master of prose. The world-building is consistent as readers are introduced to this particular paranormal reality rife with magic. This is also a professional book, as nicely produced as anything a reader can buy. But it needs characters whom we can believe in. Even antagonists need charisma—one could argue they need it even more than the heroes—to keep battles of good versus evil engaging.
If you’ll read a story about magic, even if it isn’t perfect, simply because magic is your thing, this professionally produced book is a good choice for you.
The Rating3.5 Stars (out of 5): Pretty good. For the right audience, this could be great. Sure, there were some issues, but it was still worth the read.
The Pros & ConsPros: Prose, Strong World-Building
Cons: Character Developement, Slow