Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review: 'The Magicians' by James Gunn

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Magicians’ is based on a short story Gunn published in 1954 as ‘Sine of the Magus’; the novel appeared in hardback in 1976, and this Signet paperback (168 pp.) in July 1980. The artist who created the striking cover illustration is uncredited.

Casey Kingman is a private eye and down on his luck. Things are looking so dire that he’s on the verge of closing his shop and returning to substitute teaching when a little old lady named Mrs Peabody enters his dingy office and hires him to find someone- someone whose name she doesn’t know. But Mrs Peabody is paying well, so Kingman, armed with a description of a distinguished-looking man (think Mandrake the Magician without a top hat) heads for a nearby hotel and its Crystal Ballroom, where a ‘Covention’ is taking place. 

Sitting in the back row of the Ballroom, Kingman encounters a series of seminars and demonstrations that at first makes him skeptical and amused, then increasingly alarmed. For the participants in these seminars are not magicians in the sense of being practitioners of sleight-of-hand and illusion; they are genuine mages capable of performing feats that defy physics and the laws of the universe. 

Kingman learns that the leader of the mages, a sinister individual named Solomon Magus, is in fact the man he has been hired to trace. But tracing Magus won’t be easy, for he is dedicated to the darker aspects of magic and has no scruples about threatening the life of a too-nosy private eye. Within a matter of hours, Kingman finds himself facing all manner of otherworldly dangers. Unless he can discover the strange but logical philosophy that governs the use of magic, private eye Kingman will not only lose his commission, but his life….

With ‘The Magicians’, subtitled ‘A Science Fiction Novel’, Gunn places himself among a rather large body of SF authors who present the occult not as a supernatural phenomenon, but as the manifestation of alternate forms of energy and physics emanating from a universe parallel to our own. With the proper training, including the use of mathematical equations and symbols, anyone with adequate mental discipline can learn such feats as teleportation, telekinesis, and telepathy.

Unfortunately, ‘Magicians’ is really more of a private-eye adventure than an engaging SF thriller. The narrative, based as it is on a short story, is rather circumscribed, involving a small cast of characters with the action limited to the interior of the hotel. The expansion to novel-length is mainly achieved via the insertion of lengthy sections of dialogue, and the insertion of passages involving hallucinations / out-of-body experiences that present standard-issue scenarios of witchcraft and black magic. 

Things aren’t helped by the inclusion of  a plot thread involving a romance between Kingman and an attractive female witch; this further dilutes whatever modest suspense is generated by the evil designs of Solomon Magus, who comes across as the sort of mild villain one might have encountered in the Comics Code-era books like ‘House of Secrets’,  ‘The Witching Hour’, and 'The Many Ghosts of Dr Graves'.

As an example of 70s ‘occult’ novels, ‘Magicians’ really doesn't stand up well when compared to other works of that era (such as those reviewed at The Groovy Age of Horror or Too Much Horror Fiction blogs).

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