2015’s A Pocket Full of Murder is the first volume in R. J. Anderson’s Uncommon Magic series. Pocket is a young adult fantasy-mystery.
Despite the sober foresight that placed most political power in the Tarreton City Council in the hands of the local aristocracy, Tarreton has not prospered. In large part this is because the local Sagelord Lord Arvis is a fool whose decrees have consistently undermined the local economy.
It is fortunate for the aristocracy that they are sufficiently buffered by personal wealth that they can maintain a proper lifestyle despite economic downturn. It’s a very different story for such plebeians as widower Urias Breck and his family. Not only is he unemployed (thanks to Arvis’ whimsical kneecapping of the local economy), but as a Moshite dissenter he is at the bottom of the list for most employers (who prefers their employees to belong to the Unifying Church). His affiliation with the Workers’ Club (wild-eyed extremists who want fair pay and responsible government) would further diminish his chances of being hired if anyone were to find out this last disreputable, disqualifying fact.
Or it would, if Urias had not just been arrested for murdering Governor Orien. Unemployment would be preferable to hanging.
Urias’ young daughter Isaveth is convinced her father is innocent. Her opinion carries little weight. Not only does the circumstantial evidence point at Urias, but he is also a known Moshite. The fact that Orien had just offered Urias a job might seem to counsel against a rush to judgment, but the convenience of a swift resolution to the case is just too appealing to be ignored. Urias’ only hope is that Isaveth will somehow put her hands on evidence that will save him.
Isaveth has been earning a little extra money preparing utilitarian magical trinkets, using spells she found in her late mother’s Book of Common Magic. Her knowledge of magic could help in her quest. She also has an ally in an odd young man named Quiz. Together, the pair investigate the murder. Brute force isn’t an option for either partner, so they are forced to resort to cunning, ingenuity, and deception. Oh, and magic.
Such evidence as they find points to a conspiracy that reaches to the very top of Tarreton society, As if this were not bad enough, it turns out that Quiz is not who he claims to be. Urias’ chances look dim.
It’s possible that the Anabaptists are the real world inspiration for the Moshites. Just as the Anabaptists took their principles further than other Protestants, the Moshites refused the compromise that formed the Unifying Church from the Arcan Temple (who limited magic to the aristocracy) and the Common Magic (open to masses)1. Moshites are fantasy Protestants who annoy the other fantasy Protestants by out-Protestanting them. Given that the author is a Canadian who lives in the vicinity Waterloo Region, with its largish population of Mennonites, I wondered if these latter-day Anabaptists may have inspired the Moshites. Karl Schroeder, make room!
I read a lot of mysteries when I was young. I do not recall that those old Ellery Queens, Nancy Drews, and Hardy Boys books dealt with some of the topics that Anderson approaches head on. She highlights the problems of religious minorities; older mysteries didn’t. There’s economic and social oppression in Tarreton, but not in Nancy Drew’s sunny world. Not for Nancy, anyway, and it’s not like she’d acknowledge the staff.
Given that Isaveth’s world is corrupt and unjust, she cannot expect justice and recompense. She is forced to triage: consider which of her competing goals matter most to her. Indeed, she is forced to do something her Moshite ancestors refused to do, that is, compromise. This is not your Hardy Boys setting; this is more like an Easy Rawlins. Brave new world that has such YA mysteries in it.
There is at least one more book in the series, one I plan to read. I am curious to see if Isaveth’s compromises are in fact necessary sacrifices to gain the least bad possible outcome under the circumstances2 or if she’s just taken the first steps down a pathway to hell. That would a pretty dark development for a young adult series, but modern kids don’t seem to mind dark.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: To put the dispute into universal terms, the two factions were arguing over whether Battle Magic is acceptable or if the only sanctioned magic should be Ritual Magic.
2: Isaveth may be restricted to using the Common Magic but it’s clear she has a real knack for it. Partway through the book she invents a magic-resistant wrapping. She then sells the idea outright in exchange for a lump sum. At first I thought she might have done better to licence the idea and collect royalties … but then I realized that under a corrupt government dominated by nobles and oligarchs, her chances of enforcing a licensing scheme would be slim. Better to take the lump sum and run.