It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book at random to dive into. The last few times I had done so had been such a treat I thought I would try again. I picked up The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell at the local library and thought this book was interesting enough just from the cover and the blurb (I’m a sucker for a good cover). Honestly I don’t think this book was for me.
I found the primary characters not very engaging. The story begins with the lead character Esta, a time travelling thief with quite the skillset, going back in time to partake in a heist to save the future. The problem I have with Esta is that she doesn’t really feel very compelling as a protagonist. I like the idea of her as a time traveling thief as that is such a cool idea for a character, but her personality comes off as rather flat and boring that I could never really get attached to her. It never really feels like she changes as a character during the story until the very end. A lot of her backstory comes from exposition and characters that were never really fleshed out to feel like they mattered so it was hard to find sincerity in her feelings or emotions about them. As a result, her motivations come off forced rather than naturally developed. This does change by the end with a plot development I actually found quite well done, but having to read through 500 pages before the reader gets to that point makes it difficult to stay invested in her.
Her counterpart, Harte, fairs a little better in this regard. Elements of his backstory were well written, however like Esta a lot of it comes primarily from exposition. His personality falls into the tortured artist archetype and while it was compelling at first, it slowly becomes tired until 3/4 of the book when a plot point starts to make him see things differently. It didn’t feel like an organic transition though as suddenly his motivations were more selfless. The progression of his story was ok but his interactions with the rest of the cast, especially with Esta, felt like it never grew from a standoff-ish attitude even as they worked closer together.
Now as if to counterbalance all of this, the characterization of Dolph Saunders and the crew was very well done. Dolph comes off as a tortured mob boss with a heart of gold really well and I loved that its shown in the book through his dialogue interactions and actions rather than exposition. Reading through his personal tragedy felt very emotionally charged and helped to paint just how deadly the Brink really is. It was also a nice touch with how the people of New York reacted to Dolph as either a protector or a force to be reckoned with. Seeing the distinct ways in how Esta views Dolph vs how Harte and Dolph’s history is reflected in their conversation really helps to illustrate the man Dolph is.
Old New York is pretty well constructed. The undertones of prejudice, whether racial or between magic and non-magical, does feel authentic in how overt it is. The brutality in the power grab with rival gangs is appropriate for the time and adds an air of tension whenever the characters are out and about. The magic system, however, feels lacking in how it functions. Everyone who has access to magic has a unique ability, but the story never really goes indepth with the limitations of that magic or how it actually functions. Is there a limit to how often it can be used? What determines the abilities someone gains? Is it randomly generated? While it might not seem necessary it helps to make the world feel more real and fleshed out.
The plot starts off very rocky and kind of hard to follow, but eventually it does come through into a cohesive and surprisingly interesting, albeit slow, story. I honestly couldn’t help but feel that the story started 10 chapters in as opposed to starting at the beginning. A lot of the beginning section comes off as implied rather than shown. Esta’s initial motivations revolve around this so its rather odd that not a lot of time was given to fully flesh out the introduction. All of the plot threads do eventually come together in a way that actually does work.
However it should be noted that the story does follow a bit of a macGuffin hunt and while it’s not as egregious as many other stories, it’s hard to really feel the weight behind it. The entire conflict of the story is centered around the Book, getting the book and keeping the book out of other people’s hands. Now while the use of the “item that must be captured at all costs!” isn’t always a bad thing, but since the Book is never shown as being important it’s hard to feel like it actually is. Everyone talks about how powerful the book is but it’s never really shown just how powerful it actually is.
The pacing is where the book really struggles. The pacing of the plot is so all over the place in the middle section of the book that its incredibly difficult to keep reading at times. This is a very long book at around 500 pages but that’s not what makes it feel so long. There is a long gap between moments of action that doesn’t quite succeed in building tension and when there is tension built up, it’s almost immediately resolved.
I do have to give this story credit though. This is one of the few times time travel is pulled off very well. It’s revealed early on the consequences of changing the past and seeing how Esta frequently considers how her actions have affected the future was a very nice touch. The way Esta manipulates time is quite inventive and clever as it becomes more organic than just flipping a switch.
The perspective jumping isn’t necessarily a problem, but the length of some chapters being so short and then some chapters being so painfully long makes it a challenge to keep reading. The word choice is straight forward which does help with reading for prolonged sessions but doesn’t help to ease how plodding the middle of the book was.
What Writers can learn from this Book
The content of the story is actually pretty good and if you can get passed the monotonous writing and wooden primary characters you can see it’s very well thought out. What one can argue with this novel is that it struggles with proper flow from one part of the story to the next. Pacing is key to making a book easy to pick up and keep reading. With The Last Magician, it can feel like a struggle to pick up and continue where you left off.