Innate Magic is an alternate history dark fantasy set in 20th century London. “The War” and associated arms races have happened and there’s the threat of some new major conflict on the horizon; this is mostly background though. Paul Gallagher and his best friend/found brother Thomas Dawes have just graduated magic college ready to pursue careers as Cloth Magicians; it seems like there’s basically 2 types of allowed magic: cloth and book. The ‘innate magic’ of the title is technically only allowed to one person, the Court Magician. Paul is from a lower class (his dad is a shopkeeper) than most of his classmates who are largely lower-level aristocrats who probably have little intention of using their degrees. Paul (this is revealed early on, so not spoiler) has innate magic and ambition, so he wants to get on the list for the trials to become Court Magician (this is apparently often deadly to participants), gets involved with a gossip journalist with a more serious investigation going on, and a cute guy named Hollister (like Paul says, he’s more often into girls, but when it’s a guy, he goes all in) who might be trying to lure Paul into some kind of magical scheme.
The magical system and some of the social implications are pretty true to life although the whole setting feels a bit more like Victorian England than post WW, and this is partially where some of the dark part of the fantasy comes in. In a proper magic system, there must be a price for the magic, and Paul, being a good Christian but also a bit of a rebel, has an idea that he shares with Hollister about how this might actually work, and then Paul gets drawn into some pretty dark secrets like experimenting on children, a loan shark, and the more violent side of London’s streets. There are some pretty violent and bloody moments, so if your sensitive to that, be aware; the book doesn’t really seem like this is what’s going to happen until it does, and mostly towards the final 3rd of the book, when Paul and friends are up against some powerful not entirely known entities, although the reveal about who may have been behind a lot of the badness is not too surprising. What is a little surprising is how Verity’s (the journalist) personal investigation is completed only in that she finds the information she wanted, but nothing seems to happen as a result. Admittedly, it involves top level government stuff, and there appears to be a sequel novel in the works but leaving this big a hole in the story and having most of the characters not seem to notice or care is a little irritating. I’d also like to have seen a little more development of the magic system since Paul’s theory is expressed and actually tested at one point, but the reasoning even behind the idea is never all that directly addressed. The explanation and reasoning he gives is on the superficial side, and personally, for something that turns out to be pretty fundamental to the main confrontation, I just wish there was a little more reason behind that. With Paul’s quest for Court Magician, trying to survive financially along with Thomas, aiming to work up the social ladder a little, working with Verity, and a few other side concerns, it seems like maybe there are just too many threads to fully attend to everything.
Overall, this is an interesting and sometimes entertaining story in an intriguing world, but it is rather uneven. A passable vacation read, basically.