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Bad Magic by Stephan Zielinski
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0312878621
Date: 01 December, 2004 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

In his debut novel, Stephan Zielinski throws in everything including the kitchen sink, describing the adventures of a mismatched group of wizards in San Francisco. Bad Magic is the story of a small cell of magic-enabled misfits who are the only line of defense against a deadly cult seeking to cause massive death in the Bay City--in order to power up a spell to cause even more death.

Pretty nasty stuff, but Zielinski keeps the action moving right along as partnerships are tested (and broken), plans are made and everything heads toward a final showdown deep under San Francisco Bay.

The wizards themselves are an eclectic mix. Rider is a synesthetic alchemist, transforming suffering into potions and madness into enlightenment. Whitlomb is an academic with little magical power but tremendous experience. Maggie Sue is a feral woman whose shamanic power requires some extreme sacrifices, including her very sense of self. Chloe and Sturgeon are just exploring the first hints of a romance when this crisis forces them to consider just where they stand. Arbeiter is a violent near-psychopath whose power lies in mayhem, while Washington is a semi-undead bocor with vast gifts of voodoo at his command. And the enigmatic Creedon is very powerful and very creepy, especially when he cries.

Given that their powers are not compatible, the wizards themselves are often more opposed than in agreement. However, they share enmity for the establishment, which seeks to shut down the eccentrics and free-thinkers based in the Pacific Northwest. Zielinski makes little of this conflict, except to present a crisis of faith to one character who has a chance to go back, if he betrays his comrades.

The enemies are serious business. Not allied with the establishment, they are a cult that stretches back through history, the source of tremendous misery and carnage. When the wizards figure out the true nature of this enemy, after a succession of vision-quests to acquire mastery of their growing powers, they see that all they've done so far may end in suffering and death. If they're lucky.

Zielinski's first novel is a slam-bang urban fantasy. It goes too fast in places, and there are gaps in the narrative (particularly in terms of exposition) that may frustrate some readers, but the characters are vibrant and the action provides a very fast-paced read. As he develops, he seems likely to become a talent to watch.

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