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A Spoonful of Magic
by Irene Radford
Daw, $7.99, 352pp
Published: November 2017

I enjoyed 'A Spoonful of Magic', possibly a standalone but presumably the first in a new series by the author of the 'Dragon Nimbus' books, but I enjoyed it like I'd enjoy a cosy mystery: a fun and engaging read that's hardly a challenge. It would be great for urban fantasy fans suffering from the flu.

Most of what it does is done well. Radford writes in a friendly, conversational tone that's hard to resist and she alternates her story from a number of perspectives when needed, so that we always see what we should. At its heart, it's the story of a family, a loving one even if the novel begins with a surprisingly polite breakup between the parents, so it's not difficult to care about them, individually and together. They're good people and they're a strong grounding for the story with their everyday goodness. It's hard not to root for them, especially when the bad guys are clearly stereotypical bad guys.

Well, perhaps except G (for Gabriel Deschants). I wonder (and I wondered even while reading the book) if he will be the touchpoint as to whether people enjoy this book or not. Fortunately, while he would be the lead in many takes on this story, he's not the lead in Radford's. That's his wife, Daphne, usually known as Daffy, who breaks up with him in chapter one, even after thirteen years and three kids (one of whom is only hers through adoption; he's G's from an earlier marriage). She does so because she has clear photographic evidence of him cheating, so she owns the moral high ground from the outset, even if there's far more to the story that we don't know at this point and G isn't telling. It really doesn't help that Lindsey Look's cover art tells us that Daffy is the girl next door, if the girl next door is Cameron Diaz. We're set up not only to hate on G from moment one, but to condemn him for poor taste on top of everything else. Radford does a great job of tearing him down but not so much of one bringing him back up again when the details come out.

As the title suggests, this is all about magic. It can't be a spoiler to point out that G is not only a wizard but the Sheriff for the International Guild of Wizards, given that it's mentioned within the back cover blurb, but Daffy doesn't know this as the novel begins. She doesn't even know that magic is real or that her three kids are about to manifest the magical talents they've inherited from their father and, indeed, from her; because she isn't even aware that she, the co-proprietor of Magical Brews, a coffee shop/bakery, is a powerful kitchen witch. Yes, that can all be found in the back cover blurb too, so the discovery in this novel is mostly presaged and the suspense minimised. The explanation scenes often feel redundant not because Radford has explained them before but because we knew all about them before we even opened the book.

The Deschants live in Eugene, OR, which is 'a crossroads of magical power, the previous homeland of a couple of fae races and a magnet for paranormal energies.' The locals mostly think of it as a new age haven, but it's the real deal, and G's side of the family have lived there for generations in a suitably Gothic style mansion. All that paves the way for local busybody Flora Chambers's husband Bret to stand for office on a conservative platform of Christian fundamentalism. Flora even shouts, 'We should bring back burning at the stake!' at a magnificently inappropriate moment. The Trump administration is a perfect opportunity to explore themes of tolerance within urban fantasy, a genre that is really all about 'the other'.

Of course, that's just a subplot here, one that builds well but sadly fades away during the quick ending. The core plot revolves around the revenge of G's ex-wife, who is far from dead, as Daffy and the kids believed. She's not only alive but an insane wizard who has escaped from magical custody to seek revenge on her husband, the Sheriff who arrested her, and to steal the eyes of her son, given that her efforts to escape cost her her sight. It's hardly a wildly imaginative storyline but it plays out well because G tries to keep it secret, fails miserably and lets it out piecemeal as his children start to discover their own magical talents. The conflict works well, not just between old and new, magic and mundane or G and the fact that his wife is starting to date other men, but between what is known and what is not, making this a sort of amateur underdog vs. insane professional type of story.

The upsides are in tone, theme and character, at least on the side of good (the villains are too stereotypical for much depth). Daffy is enticing in the lead, but I found a lot of connection to her kids. Jason is a ballet dancer, so is picked on a little but has the strength of character to deal with it; he's open to new things, such as African jazz for interpretative dance routines. Belle is the middle school nerd, with her glasses, braces and fondness for maths, but she's social within her own circles, like the chess club. Shara is the youngest and most precocious, her talents manifesting earlier and stronger than her siblings; she has a talent for finding things, even if they're behind locked doors or firewalls. These are all great and promising characters, should Radford want to extend them into a series.

The downsides are in the dialogue and the author's understanding of IT. She sold me on Shara's abilities but not on her own grasp of technology. There are points where this descends into 'CSI: Miami' level gibberish:

'Tonight, he'd make sure he changed some of the protocols at that special website.

"Shara, while she's looking for paper and pen, are you on my desktop computer with the secure modem?"

"Well, duh. How do you think I busted through six layers of firewall? My laptop doesn't have enough juice to do that, even with the ten-terabyte external hard drive."

"Okay, okay. I need you to go to the secondary browser labeled GoW. It's in a subdirectory of my work notes."'

Even if I didn't work in IT, I'd know that was entirely nonsense. The dialogue is better, but often too stilted, correct or overly detailed to be believable as everyday conversation. Fortunately, this is less frequently a problem. Sadly, it manifests itself most powerfully in the more crucial exchanges, such as, 'Look, I have upon occasion found release with another woman when...' No. Just no.

The final flaw is the ending, which is far too short and simple to work well. The build is good but the payoff isn't, though it's more underwhelming than disappointing. It also focuses on the primary ending without really acknowledging that there were subplots and other stories within the big one that needed their own payoffs too.

All in all, this is fun stuff and I'd happily dive into a sequel, if Radford writes one. However, it's fluffy too, so don't go looking for anything deep or meaningful that stands up to much examination. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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