Science Fiction/Fantasy

Magic for Grown-Ups

Rachel Manwill

Staff Writer

Rachel Manwill is an editor, writer, and professional nomad. Twice a year, she runs the #24in48 readathon, during which she does almost no reading. She's always looking for an excuse to recommend a book, whether you ask her for one or not. When she's not ranting about comma usage for her day job as a corporate editor, she's usually got an audiobook in her ears and a puppy in her lap. Blog: A Home Between Pages Twitter: @rachelmanwill

Normally, I am among the last to spot trends in publishing, particularly of the supernatural tendency. It wasn’t until I read The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan earlier this year that it clicked in my brain that maybe this werewolf thing had something to it, forgetting completely the many books even I myself had read that had featured werewolves. I’m not the most observant person in the world, I admit.

But very recently, on a long car trip, from New England to DC, I had a moment of clarity. I was listening to the audiobook of Alma Katsu’s newly published novel, The Taker, and in it, there is a scene (and I swear this isn’t giving anything away) wherein a deaf woman is made to pull up a plant, but only after her master and his servant have walked a considerable distance away and covered their ears. Before it’s revealed what the plant in question is, I knew immediately that it would be a mandrake. In case you’re not familiar, a mandrake is typically thought to be a magical root appearing very human in resemblance, used for a variety of purposes, and “according to the legend, when the root is dug up it screams and kills all who hear it” (from Wikipedia).

For any Harry Potter fan, the reference is not unfamiliar. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Prof. Sprout has the students harvesting mandrakes that are squalling babies when they’re first picked, which are then used to cure the petrification of several students. But the mythical mandrakes have appeared in several books I’ve read recently, and I’m hazarding a guess that a certain literary trend is on the rise: magic. And specifically, alchemy (or more crudely, potion-making).

It would be easy to trace the recent rise in magical themes in adult literature back to everyone’s favorite spectacled teenager, but I find this trend much more subtle and complicated than just the waving of wands and incantations. In fact, the magic or alchemy in adult literature right now is primarily historical in setting, and sometimes, doesn’t really exist at all. It’s only the hint or suspicion of witchcraft in some cases and, in others, it is truly consorting with the devil that puts the magic entirely on another plane from Rowling’s series. These are settings in which magic exists to have serious, sometimes fatal, consequences, either for those practicing or for bystanders. Many of these stories are dark and scary. They are, plain and simple, magic for grown-ups. (Full confession: I got my first recent hint of alchemy in adult fiction with the Lady Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, an addictively readable historical romance, that I’m admitting to loving for the first time right here).

Here are five recent novels that take magic to a whole new adult place, on a scale ranging from “maybe there’s a witch here, let’s burn her!” to “the candlesticks are floating, how is he doing that?!?”

  1. The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch. Think the Salem Witch trials, but in Germany in the 1660s, with a dash of George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane thrown in. Orphans are going missing or showing up murdered with a sign of witchcraft tattooed onto their shoulders. The town’s midwife is immediately suspected because she deals in strange potions (like the mandrake!) and because the children were seen hanging around her house. But the hangman – a potion-maker himself – doesn’t believe a word of it, and sets about to prove her innocence, while also picking apart what’s real witchcraft and what isn’t.
  2. The Taker by Alma Katsu. This is the book I was listening to on audio, and while there’s plenty to classify this as “paranormal,” I place this one staunchly in the “magical realism” category. A woman is brought to a remote Maine ER by the police after she’s found wandering the highway, wearing blood soaked clothes. She admits to murdering a man, but claims that she killed him on his request, and then sets about telling her story – the story of how she became immortal – to the ER doctor that treats her. Filled with multiple kinds of magic, there is a significant portion within the realm of old alchemy and ancient divination.
  3. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. The first in a trilogy, Harkness’ debut novel is grounded entirely in alchemy, historical curses, and witchcraft. While this also features the overplayed vampire trend, it’s a novel that doesn’t feel like it could be cross-marketed for teenagers. It’s also as much about the love of books as it is about magic, and it’s scribbling from a book that ignites this story. There is an academic, intelligent face on the magic, which elevates the entire premise beyond shallow trendiness.
  • The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman. I saw these books described once as “Harry Potter meets Brett Easton Ellis.” (If you know where I saw that, please let me know. I’d like to give proper credit for such an apt comparison). I have the sense that parents that protested Harry Potter on the grounds that it promoted the occult would be shocked beyond recognition by Grossman’s decidedly grown-up take on a magical education. These are books for those of us that still wish for our acceptance letter to Hogwarts, but who are older and expect magical boarding school to be filled the sex, alcohol and consequences that regular college had.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. About as buzzy as a book can get, Morgenstern’s enchanting black-and-white take on a magical duel is so full of mystery and illusion that even it’s main players are not entirely sure of their magical reach. It’s a book that is so stylized and captivating, I half expect to glance in the mirror mid-page and find a silk top hat on my head. As otherworldly as the Circus is, Morgenstern sets about creating a book where the magic of our own senses is as equally exploited as our imaginations. I’m pretty sure my copy, for example, has been enchanted to smell like popcorn and caramel.

    Whether you’re in the mood for a little hocus pocus in advance of Halloween, or you’d just like a book you probably wouldn’t give to anyone under 15, grown-up magic is here. Of course, I may still be a little late in predicting this trend. After all, I’m looking at my bookshelves and realizing I’ve got a book from 1993 I’ve never read that possibly fits within this category: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Like I said, I’ve never been particularly observant.