Magic Time: Not aging well

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Magic Time by Marc Scott Zicree and Barbara HamblyMagic Time by Marc Scott Zicree and Barbara Hambly

Magic Time is the first book of a fantasy trilogy helmed by Marc Scott Zicree. This book is co-written with Barbara Hambly. Each of the subsequent books in the series is written with a different writer. Magic Time was published in 2001, and it is not aging well.

I had a difficult time getting through Magic Time. It narrowly missed achieving Did Not Finish status. When I did finish it I realized that all this book did was set up Book Two.

Zicree’s book is a post-apocalyptic fantasy in the mode of The Stand and Swan Song, although the cause of the cataclysm that brings magic into our world springs from a covert government experiment gone wrong. With very little warning, high technology stops working, and magic sweeps America. Some people begin to physically change as a result of this magical storm. The hero’s young sister, Tina, for instance, morphs into something between a Smurf ® and a Tolkienesque elf. The book follows various groups of characters; some in New York City, some in Washington D.C. and some in the small West Virginia town of Boone’s gap, as they grapple with this disaster and the new world that’s dawning.

See if any of these characters sound familiar: the orphaned small-town boy who has come to New York to make his fortune, possibly at the loss of his soul; his plucky sister for whom he is responsible; the Amazon-like tough chick who has never been able to trust love; the psychic, precognitive homeless guy who lives in the subway tunnels; the brilliant but lonely school-teacher with lots of cats; the cold, soulless lawyer; the cold, soulless scientist; the tough secret-service guy, one assignment away from retirement, who is on a secret mission. I left out my favorite familiar stereotypical character; the single guy who kept his mother’s porcelain doll collection, who loves to cook, and wishes for a big strong demon (oooh, with lots of muscles) to protect him from that nasty world out there. This is Sam. Sam would be offensively stereotypical, as would Eli Stern, the lawyer/demon, if all the other characters weren’t equally one-note.

The best parts of the book take place in Boone’s Gap, although there is a harrowing sequence shown through the eyes of the secret service guy, Shango, as he searches for another secret service agent’s final notes on what may have brought about the catastrophe. The problem with Shango’s subplot is that while it has action and emotional resonance, it is ultimately meaningless. Basically, nothing in this book has much meaning because it is all written to set up the second book.

While the shallow characterization did not engage me, I also had trouble with the magic. Magic can function in a book like a force of nature, unpredictable and uncontrollable, but, like nature, it does have to be internally consistent. In Magic Time, all high technology ceases to function in one instant. Phones, TVs, electric lights, airplanes, cars… nothing works. This is presented like an electro-magnetic pulse (in one heart-breaking sequence airplanes fall out of the sky), except that battery-operated things like flashlights don’t work either. Guns don’t fire, but cigarette lighters still flame. Why? Then it turns out that some guns (very old guns) will fire. They fire magically, even when no one’s loaded black powder and a ball. Why? The lack of internal plausibility creates a paradox for the reader. Would a water-wheel work, or a windmill, if someone set it up? It seems like it should, but there are no rules, so maybe the wheels wouldn’t turn. We have no way of knowing. Do antibiotics still work, or have bacteria changed magically as well? We have no way of knowing. There is no consistency.

Page by page the action sequences are good. I liked the battle between our hero Cal and the dragon/demon Eli Stern in the high-rise that used to house Stern’s law firm. The scene in the tunnels underneath New York, when Cal finds the sword he’s dreamed about, was nice too; similarly, Hank leading his team of miners out of the mine shafts in Boone’s Gap was suspenseful. These sequences are episodic; there isn’t enough tension and drama to create forward momentum.

Magic Time has enough action and good visuals to make a fun B movie or a basic cable original mini-series.  If you are thirsting for a nice post-apocalyptic fantasy to read, however, I suggest you go back to the classics and skip this one.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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