2023’s A Sleight of Shadows is the second volume in Kat Howard’s Unseen World series. The first volume was An Unkindness of Magicians, whose review may be found here.
During the revolution called the Turning, Sydney sacrificed her magic to bring down the malevolent House of Shadows. Thanks to Sydney, the mages of the Unseen World can no longer draw their power from the slaves of the House of Shadows. They must draw on their own power. That’s painful.
Many sorcerers are unhappy with the new state of affairs. Spells may not work; using magic hurts. Ill-will is building. Can the Turning be reversed?
As it happens, the House of Shadows has begun reassembling itself without human intervention.
When one cannot apply massive amounts of raw power, the sensible alternative is to judiciously apply the resources one has. Step one: research! Which leads Sydney to the Archives, an establishment with which Sydney finds an unexpected kinship.
Complicating efforts to smother the new House of Shadows in the cradle: many established sorcerers resent the new order. Dahlia Morgan is determined to restore the old regime, no matter the cost to other people. She has a plan. Dahlia even has a voluntary sacrifice for the rebuilt House, naïve young Mia Rodriguez.
The Unseen World is an artificial creation, spun out of dark magic lifetimes ago1. Sydney and her allies now have a deeper understanding of the implications of that fact . Unfortunately, one of the secrets they have learned is that the House of Shadows was designed as an integral part of the system. The Unseen World itself is working against Sydney.
Sydney and her allies don’t want to stand by as the old exploitive system is restored. But Sydney has given up her magic. It’s not clear what Sydney can do to confound Dahlia or the ever-growing House of Shadows.
The novel focuses on something many other revolutionary spec fic books ignore (perhaps simply due to lack of room). It’s not enough to overthrow the Old Order. Something durable needs to be established, something that can resist a counter-revolution.
Think of this book as a cousin to “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The Unseen World’s comforts depended on mistreated children. The difference between the Le Guin story and Kat Howard’s setting is that someone did something more effective than simply walking away.
This book could also be read as a commentary on all those ancient magical schools and societies that writers have imagined. The founders would have adhered to social beliefs now considered antiquated. Those institutions that effectively resist reform would still embody older, oppressive cultures. This should be no more shocking than discovering that there’s a university that still issues graduates with swords (presumably to fend off invading Vikings or Oxbridge scholars) or a modern nation-state whose head of state is invested into office with peculiar native magical rituals. Where this novel differs from some others featuring ancient institutions is that this novel is critical of the outdated world views, rather than, as some other series have done, painting reformers as sadly deluded do-gooders who fail to understand that the oppressed both deserve and enjoy their circumstances.
The plot is plausible: the powerful will try to regain their power. I liked Sydney and was rooting for her to succeed … even though I couldn’t imagine how she could. Dahlia is a flamboyant villain who deserves everything that happens to her. I didn’t like this book as much as the first. I’m not quite sure why. No doubt the fault lies in my stars.
1: How many other creations like the Unseen World exist? A quick search of the epub does not find terms like Asia or Africa, so it could be that vast regions of the planet are not part of the Unseen World’s domain. Also, while the magicians are not aware of another creation like the Unseen World in their part of the world, they don’t seem to be particularly curious about events outside their closed society.