Often, fantastical worlds are used as allegories to discuss real-world issues, from behind a shield of magic or sci-fi flavour. The book Flatland comes to mind; in a society of two-dimensional shapes, a fellow named A. Square (a hilarious pun on the author’s initials) meets a circle that… changes size! It turns out that the circle is not a circle at all, but a three-dimensional sphere visiting Square’s two-dimensional plane, who spends the majority of the book trying to convince Mr. Square that the orthodoxy’s narrative about reality is a lie, used to manipulate the various 2D shapes into an oppressive caste system. Obviously, this had nothing to do with the Victorian hierarchy from which Mr. Abbott wrote, right? But escapist fiction can be like that. It allows us to explore our own problems from another perspective, and perhaps better understand our world through a different light.

Strange Ways by Gray Williams — and to a lesser extent, its prequel, The End of the Line — allows us to examine our world from the perspective of a nearly identical parallel universe, in which magic is real, and has been outlawed since the 40s (at least in the English-speaking world). Whereas in our world, the information age has spread knowledge to every corner of the world, in the world of the Black Market Magic series the advent of the internet and cell phones has uncorked the metaphorical genie bottle, allowing anyone, anywhere, to unlock the secrets of magic.

Of course, in a world roughly analogous to our own, it goes about as well as you’d expect. Unlicensed magic users, or ‘Abras,’ are criminals, and it is from the perspective of these criminals that we explore the world. Our primary protagonist is Amanda Coleman, a hyper-capable criminal who has made some horrible choices and wound up in jail. When her daughter (herself no saint) Michaela’s life is threatened, she needs to find a way to infiltrate London’s most notorious supermax prison — analogous to Guantanamo Bay in the real world — and assassinate a particularly notorious magic-user. The social taboo around magic can be used as a metaphor for any oppressive model you like in the real world — or you can ignore that part, and enjoy a decently-written urban fantasy thriller, which rests among gems like The Dresden Files. Amanda can’t match Harry Dresden for snark, but she’s a legitimate badass with a fleshed-out inner life and difficult choices to make. 

Williams’ magic system is also fleshed-out and interesting, particularly in how its presence in an otherwise-modern world alters the social and political dynamics. Notably, the majority of the book takes place in a prison environment, and here Williams has done his homework; he worked with another writer who’d done extensive research on women’s prisons, in an effort to avoid cliché and insensitive writing. The result is a thoughtful text, clearly the product of a thoughtful mind. You also don’t need to have read the prequel to be right at home here, which is considerate.

That’s not to say that Strange Ways is a literary masterpiece. It’s a flick, prone to occasional fits of clunky grammar and lacklustre scene work. That said, it’s a short read, an improvement over its prequel, and well worth your time and money.

Publisher: Canelo

Author: Gray Williams

Title: Strange Ways

Formats: Kindle, ebook, audio CD, Audible

Price: £1.99 or $4

Pages: 317

ISBN: 9781788638463

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