Blood Like Magic
Blood Like Magic
Once I’m standing in the middle of the room, I let my blood drip on the hardwood.
The words don’t come strong out of my mouth. They’re a whisper as timid and fragile as my resolve. “Mama Jova.”
Heat permeates the room, as hot as the New Orleans sun was in the memory that Mama showed me. Sweat breaks out on the back of my neck and forms a thin sheen on my forehead.
My ancestor curls out of the smoke that appears in the room as if in the middle of a dance, with her arms curved above her head and her torso twisted. Tendrils of the dark wind sneak into my nostrils and fill them with the harsh vinegar tang of rotting sugarcane.
… I wring my hands. “I’ve decided to accept the task.”
Blood Like Magic is the first book of a fantasy series set in a near-future Toronto. Voya belongs to a family of witches who receive their magical gifts from their ancestors after passing the trial of their Calling. Mama Jova, an ancestor who was whipped to death while a slave, gives Voya the impossible Calling task of destroying her first love. If she fails, her younger half-sibling will die, and her family will forever lose their magic.
While helping her cousin Keis apply for an internship at prestigious NuGene, Voya enters the beta test of a genetic match program and is romantically matched with obnoxious intern Luc. Since Voya has never been in love before, she decides she needs to fall in love with Luc and then kill him to complete her Calling. The plot follows Voya’s awkward courtship of Luc, complicated by a mystery surrounding Justin, CEO of NuGene and Luc’s sponsor.
Voya succeeds in falling in love with Luc, realizes she can’t kill him, and finally figures out that “destroy” doesn’t have to mean murder. She also realizes that “first love” doesn’t have to be romantic, and her cousin Keis might also count. Then Justin kidnaps her family, hoping to use their magic for his gene manipulation ambitions. Voya has to choose whom she can save and who must be sacrificed, not just to pass her Calling but to rescue her whole family from Justin’s evil scheme.
Blood Like Magic is rich with characterization and setting. Voya lives with a multi-generational extended family, and their complicated, fraught, loving relationships are the heart of the book. Voya has three cousins as close as sisters, and they annoy and support one another with sparkling dialog and engaging interactions. Granny, the family matriarch, is another powerful force in the novel, both implacably demanding and fiercely protective. The other adults in the family are all well-developed, although they suffer from their role in the plot which is to hinder Voya by not telling her crucial information. Voya’s devotion to her family gives her compelling and sympathetic motivation.
A wider community of witches plays a role in the story, and this hidden multi-racial subculture adds depth to the setting. Voya’s experimentation with Trinidadian recipes for a cooking contest and her family’s preparations for the Caribana festival add further texture and life to Sambury’s fantasy Toronto.
Luc is an enjoyably prickly love-interest, and his encounters with Voya jump off the page. His backstory—a Mexican child taken from his family to pursue a bright future in Canada, so long as he meets his sponsor’s expectations—offers a nuanced look at class and racial disparity as well as giving him a connection with Voya. In this alternate near future, even a Black family with powerful magic still encounters economic and social discrimination.
The central dilemma of the plot felt contrived, particularly since it took so long for Voya—and her family—to figure out what the reader can guess right away: “destroy” isn’t the same as “kill”. Voya’s repeated agonizing about whether she will be able to kill Luc was never convincing. The ultimate choice she has to make, between destroying Luc’s future hopes or those of Keis, would have been a more compelling central dilemma. Instead, it got short shrift as a last-minute reveal, and readers weren’t able to participate in her decision.
Voya’s automatic assumption that she has to kill Luc also undercuts the morality explored with the novel’s pure and impure magic. Impure magic uses torture and human sacrifice to gain greater power to accomplish good ends. Granny chose to give up the extra power so their family could be pure. But, despite the stated importance of their pure status, all the adults unhelpfully badger Voya to “finish this”, and no one seems particularly horrified by the possibility of Voya’s becoming a murderer. Violence, suffering and death are the legacy of slavery, represented graphically by Mama Jova’s story. How that legacy informs pure and impure magic, the costs of protecting one’s family, the choices of power for the powerless, are interesting questions that hover at the edges of the story, not fully explored.
The pacing of Blood Like Magic sometimes felt slow, and the climax was unnecessarily complicated, but the strength of the character relationships and the interesting juxtaposition of witchcraft with a believable sci-fi setting will keep readers engaged. Lots of realistic diversity in this original #OwnVoices fantasy. Trigger warnings for torture and murder.
Kim Aippersbach is a writer, editor and mother of three in Vancouver, British Columbia.