Esta is a girl who was raised under Professor Lachlan, a guy who may as well have a master’s degree in fantastical science and time travel ethics. One day she and her friend Logan are all the way in 1926 at this esteemed palace ball to try and steal this artifact in a dagger, a stone called the Pharoah’s Heart that Lachlan felt the entitled Schwab family shouldn’t have. Esta ends up not being able to quite make the heist and switch the dagger with a fake in time, though, and Logan ends about about to be shot. So she has to do an ability, in spite of mandatory advice to never use it with people who have a connection to the Order watching, but she has no choice; she stops time, and then takes Logan back with her to the present day...to find out history has completely changed in the 90 years since the rocky heist. You see, New York City, the Big Apple, is not just the setting of this book. It’s circled by a barrier of dark magic known as The Brink; and anyone who possesses Mageus; basically magic within their veins, and ends up arriving into New York City is trapped there. For if afterward they touch the Brink, not only does it feel like hundreds of needles piercing your flesh, but you also lose something of yourself if you pull yourself back in time. You lose a chunk of what makes you a person. After Esta’s screw-up, Professor Lachlan knows a way to fix this; history tells us of a grand heist in a, uh, let’s call it a business palace, called Khafre Hall, where five individuals infiltrated the place and made off with a book called the Ars Arcana. This book has only been heard in legends, of a book that details the very beginning of magic, with the only known way to destroy the Brink and stop New York City from being a prison. The only thing is, a vague article details how one of these robbers named Harte Darrigan betrayed the group and sent the book out to sea, making it lost forever, dooming the Mageus to be imprisoned within the noisy city for eternity. But thanks to this knowledge, all is not lost, if Esta can travel back to 1902 when the heist took place and intercept the robbery.
So from that description, it’s fair to call this book a high fantasy. In fact, Lisa Maxwell has a new word for muggles; the Sundren. So what are some other long high fantasies I’ve read? Some of them I’ve really loved, like Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and I finished and enjoyed the first book in her Renegades series not long ago. And there are a lot of other fantasy books I’ve loved too, like The Taking, Miss Peregrine, and A Shadow Bright and Burning. But those ones were average-YA length. A lot of long high fantasies I haven’t enjoyed, despite tremendous praise on the outside. There’s Six of Crows, which I changed my original grade from 2.5/4 to 1.75/4 when looking back and deciding it just really did not mix well for me. Then there’s the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. I ended up hating the first book, one of the most disappointing reads of 2016. Then in 2018, I read the other two books, and was mildly impressed with the second book and was beginning to really like the third until it completely ran out of gas two-thirds in. I guess for me, I don’t read fantasy books to learn about the gorgeous palaces and out-there costumes and complicated fictional history the author’s dreamed up. I read them to learn about a different kind of society and a different system of rules, and what happens to people because of this environment and how they find ways to work around it. When it comes to these traits, The Last Magician not only fit the bill, but it did not have too many main characters, allowing me to not feel assaulted with a ton of people I now had to pay attention to in order to understand them.
It’s interesting how this is also a fantasy that’s technically around immigration, about how the Brink is a border and it’s controlled by people who aren’t magic. Imagine all other kinds of fantasy novels centred around important topics, and making us feel the importance of the real-world topic through the story. Early into the book, we witness a painful character death that felt so avoidable, so unexpected, so tragic, that it put me on full alert and in wonder of if anyone would have to die the same way.
The thing I like most about this book is how the story is complex yet straightforward. The four main characters in this third-person novel, who each get various points in the spotlight, all have clear reasons to want the legendary book. So who are we supposed to root for? You’d think it’s Esta, but it’s not that cut-and-paste, especially when all the characters, even Esta, prove a smudge of smugness on rough days. The longer we spend with these people as they’re struggling through the ranks, as they feel less and less safe in the city that will one day never sleep, the more we almost feel we need a time-out to think it over properly.
The second act of this book, which is often the tipper from plus to minus for my negatively reviewed books, is pretty decently handled here. Yes, it is basically preparation for the heist. But more is sprinkled throughout. Meetings with bribes, threats, and challenges to who can win the smear argument take place. The characters dream of a better life. A seething entitled man is after Esta for vengeance. Darrigan performs magic shows he cannot screw up because New York is his only place he can set up stage (yes, due to The Brink). One character becomes terrified of ever being able to return home and another has a life hanging in his balance, based on his interactions. And the cherry on top; it’s not romance heavy. There is a bit of flirting, but I’m sick of books that think young heroes are always so horny that they can’t function properly without the good-luck kiss. This one rests my case on why books without that trait are better.
Maxwell is good at convincing us to keep reading despite an intimidatingly long read ahead of us. She doesn’t make situations too confusing, by being able to give us realistic and extreme dialogue between people who believe the other is up to something bad, and most of the time they are. She does not info-dump on us. Esta, Harte, and Dolph all quickly become sympathetic characters, all tough but clearly very scared. Plus, if an action scene arrives, there will be a few character switches to keep the scene stretched, as we have to read about a reaction we expect, but the bumps back and forth don’t go too fast like they did in Given to the Sea, and while we hear about how frightened or ready or annoyed these points of view are, they’re doing something, progressing the story. Also, our minds were built not to process facts but listen to stories, and the book operates through stories instead of overly complicated fantasy and serious drama before we’re even able to get to know these people. That said, yes, it is noticeably long and would’ve been perfectly fine shaving off about 50-80 pages, but at the very least, Maxwell’s ability to flesh out these characters made me not want to start a different book while reading this. I wanted to stay on board for the whole ride, and when two characters got feelings for each other, I believed it.
The sequel, The Devil’s Thief, has been out for a little while now, and the end of the series, The Serpent’s Curse, is supposed to be out in about six months. Also, The Devil’s Thief is 200 pages longer than this book, and as I said, this was a two-weeker. I admit, this is not a book that reluctant readers will devour. They need to be ready for something big. Even Lisa Maxwell started the acknowledgments page with, “This is a big book”. I certainly see myself continuing the series. I accept the challenge, and you just might end up loving it if you take it with me.