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Room Without A Roof

Off-Time Jive

By A. Z. Louise 

29 Dec, 2023

Doing the WFC's Homework


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A.Z. Louise’s 2023 Off-Time Jive is a stand-alone fantasy mystery novella.

Old Magic is dangerous. New Magic is safer but is fueled by happiness and is the domain of African Americans (Negros in the vernacular of the 1920s when the novel is set). This is a problem for New Magic practitioner Bessie Knox, formerly of the Bronx Academy of Magic. Thanks to a recent magical calamity, Knox’s supply of joy is meagre.

Knox’s problems will only get worse.

Knox is still knowledgeable. She can usually rely on her new hire, Bentley, to do the heavy lifting of spell-casting. The two would make an ideal team of independent magical consultants … if it weren’t for Bentley’s links to organized crime and the nefarious Rossi brothers.

Knox is hired to find missing Doctor Helen Mauro of the Bronx Academy of Magic. It’s not hard to find Mauro, who is far too dead to effectively hide. The condition of the corpse makes the cause of death clear: magic, specifically New Magic. Safer is not the same thing as completely safe.

Many magicians have died from sorcerous mishaps. It soon becomes obvious that is not what happened to Mauro. Someone wanted her dead. Not only that … the same person seems to have a whole list of people they want dead. Petrified corpses begin to pile up in Harlem.

Knox is smart and she has the necessary clues to work out who is responsible and why … provided she can do so before the killer gets around to eliminating Knox herself.

Obligatory observation that societies that have had actual, functioning magic for a long time shouldn’t look as much like modern America as this setting does. However, each SFF story gets one gimmee and the modern world + magic” is a popular one.

Tracking down Bessie Knox’s first name was interesting, as it is only mentioned four times in the entire novella.

It’s a bit of a mean trick for Louise to arm the protagonist of a noir mystery with a form of magic that requires the practitioner to find their happy place, particularly since Knox is an African American living in 1920s New York, a city that doesn’t give African Americans many opportunities to smile. However, complicated, afflicted protagonists are very on brand for a noir tale.

The author doesn’t have room for a detailed history of magic in this setting. Why is it the domain of African Americans1? Why is it considered new? Perhaps newly invented or is it (like the New World”) something that has existed for a long time but which was only recently noticed by Europeans? These questions don’t matter to Knox (presumably because she knows the answers) and are not clearly answered.

The novella is a perfectly functional noir: the author plants their protagonist in a tree, and hucks an increasing number of increasingly large rocks at them. What more could one want?

The pace did seem a bit too compressed. Generally speaking, I prefer shorter to long (see, for example, my final review for 2023, which I will almost certainly forget to link to here when it goes live on December 31). This would be an exception. I’d have liked to see the novel-length version. Perhaps someday I will.

Off-Time Jive is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Kobo), and here (Neon Hemlock). I did not find it at either Apple Books or Chapters-Indigo.

1: Presumably, they invented it but white people have appropriated other art forms from black people.