Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Review: Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, let me say: this is one of the best-edited books I have read for some time, and that was why I bought it, despite some warnings in the reviews I read about a non-conclusive ending. I thought I could at least enjoy the ride to that ending, and I was right. I spotted four extremely minor errors, two of them typos and two of them usage issues, which is excellent.

However, the ending itself didn't disappoint me either. Certainly, not everything is resolved, but to me, that's good news; it implies sequels, and I want to read more in this setting.

The book has been described as "Harry Potter meets X-Files", which is almost completely inaccurate. Yes, it involves a college of magic and a federal agent investigating the uncanny, but that's the extent of the resemblance to either of those franchises. The college is mostly a backdrop, and mostly (apart from the fact that magic is taught there) a standard American college. The agent is not a student there, but a teacher. She's nothing like Mulder or Scully, and her case doesn't have an X-Files vibe either, to me at least.

So that's what it isn't. What is it?

It's a well-written urban fantasy/alternative history, in a world where Aleister Crowley cleaned up his act, had real magic, and deployed demons against the Japanese and Germans to end World War II. It's set in the present day, and the main character is a federal agent in magical law enforcement. Her own magical skills are not great, but she can read auras, which mostly makes up for her neurological inability to recognise faces.

Yes, the protagonist is disabled. She's also black and a woman. Several other characters are bisexual or gay, and one is genderqueer. If all of that bothers you for some reason, don't read it, but personally I didn't notice any of the soapboxing that one reviewer on Amazon complained about.

Seanan McGuire had a great answer to a reader who complained "Why did you make X character gay when it made no difference to the story?" Her reply was to the effect that she didn't "make" him gay, he was gay, and it didn't have to be significant to the story any more than someone being straight. There are gay people. They're people. You'll meet them at some point, and they have all the characteristics of other people. Their sexual orientation is just one thing about them, and if they're characters in a story, that doesn't have to be what the story is about.

If this book had a weakness, for me, it was that the magic system didn't come across as having been completely worked out (so there's another parallel to Harry Potter, then). It was used more or less as a convenience. The magic theory lectures didn't seem to translate into plot points. Sometimes magic just replaced technology, like the crystals which were cellphones (though at one point the author apparently slips and mentions a telephone). Sometimes it did things that the plot needed. It didn't, to me, give the impression of having been planned out in advance, in detail, with all the implications for how it would change society taken into consideration. That's extremely hard to do, by the way, and it's not like magic was used as a deus ex machina on every page. It caused as many problems as it solved, too, so points for that.

When I was looking at the author's other books, I saw that he's done a supers book which I looked at a while back and didn't get because the sample didn't quite hook me. I think I might take another look at it, having read this one, because overall I'm impressed.

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