New Hampshire-based writer Kat Howard understands that magic isn’t easy. As she demonstrated last year in her debut fantasy novel, “Roses and Rot,” enchantment takes a toll on those who wield it, and acts of sorcery are never without consequences.

In her second novel, “An Unkindness of Magicians,” Howard widens her narrative focus to chronicle the machinations of the secret rulers of New York City. These powerful enchanters accumulate wealth and prestige as they walk unnoticed among the normal people – trading, storing and stealing magic like a tangible commodity.

As the novel opens, the Turning, a time of great change, is about to descend upon the Unseen World, the mystical plane from which magicians draw their power. Representatives from each House of magic receive notice by text, email or elaborate handwritten note: “Fortune’s Wheel has begun its turning. When it ceases rotation, all will be made new.”

Through a series of magical duels, each House will vie for dominance over the others. At first, the contests are non-lethal, with failure more embarrassing than life-threatening. Eventually, though, some contests will be winnable only by the death of one of the opponents.

Howard peoples her book with a strongly detailed cast of magicians. Miranda Prospero considers her House situated to withstand whatever upheavals might occur. Miles Merlin runs the top-ranking House and means to keep it that way. Up-and-comer Laurent Beauchamps believes it prudent to hire a champion to stand on behalf of his House.

Kat Howard. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Beauchamps’s champion is a wild card, a formidable contender named Sydney. Given as a child sacrifice to the House of Shadows and now released on a short leash to do the House’s bidding, Sydney fosters her own agenda of exposure and revenge. She feels a lot of justifiable anger at having been dumped into hellish servitude for decades.

Howard writes, “She planned to drag all those dirty little secrets out of the shadows and into the light, and if necessary, the light would be cast by the flames she had lit as she burned the Unseen World to the ground.”

Every participant in the Turning is doubly on edge. Magic itself seems to be malfunctioning in unpredictable ways. Magicians are getting hurt when they should be safe, and some are losing their powers altogether.

Meanwhile, a rogue magician is luring young women away from bars and killing them for the residual magic stored within their finger bones.

Many readers will likely be reminded of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” trilogy, which brought an adult, post-modern sensibility to “The Chronicles of Narnia” and other beloved children’s fantasies. Grown-up fans of Harry Potter might also enjoy the sorcerous showdowns presented in “An Unkindness of Magicians,” and there’s enough familial double-dealing to pique the curiosities of readers who admire Neil Gaiman or Roger Zelazny.

Howard’s novel, however, isn’t merely another cookie-cutter piece of urban fantasy. It has a unique tone and rhythm, one that keeps the reader off-balance and unsure where the plot is headed – sometimes to the narrative’s betterment, sometimes to its detriment.

Early on, keeping track of each character and his or her strengths, weaknesses and loyalties proves occasionally exhausting. With their low stakes, some of the early, non-lethal duels lack urgency, and the discussions of their strategies take up too much space. But as Sydney’s plans and motives for vengeance become clearer, her story provides fuel that ups the narrative’s ante. The novel works best with her at center stage. She is the one who sees the grave injustice at the heart of the Unseen World, and her fury at the fellow practitioners who ignore it galvanizes the novel, raises it a cut above the usual fantasy page-turner and perhaps renders the book more accessible to readers who don’t normally partake of speculative fiction.

Sydney is a genuinely tragic figure, traumatized but ready to fight back, willing to take any risk necessary. She’s sharp, sarcastic, vulnerable and often scary, and Howard understands how to use her to best effect as she spars physically and verbally with her fellow magicians.

If the novel starts slowly, it ends with suitable force and sufficient surprise. Howard is a thoughtful, careful and frequently elegant writer, and her second book displays her strengths to fine effect. Haunting, humorous and unpredictable, “An Unkindness of Magicians” works its own brand of literary magic.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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