Laura Kramer is an apprentice Sweeper in Amicae, a city that runs on magic, and the only apprentice to a cantankerous man who is the last in a long line of Sweepers.
The Sweepers are responsible for fighting the monsters that ooze out of the hollows contained in the magical amulets that power the city. Once their energy is spent, monsters eventually grow and ooze from the amulets, absorbing (and destroying) everything in their path.
In essence, The City of Broken Magic is the story of a magical bomb squad. Except, in this case, the “bombs” aren’t widely recognized as a threat, and the job consists not only of keeping Amicae safe, but also maintaining the dark secret of what a Sweeper’s job truly entails.
It’s a dangerous gig, and the need for secrecy means it comes without glory: the general public doesn’t know about the curse that created the monsters, nor that the vaunted city walls are no defense from them. Sweepers are viewed as little more than glorified exterminators. Laura is young, just out of her schooling, and without many job prospects, but she also has an affinity for magic, a driving need to do something meaningful, and, perhaps most importantly, she’s willing to put up with Head Sweeper Clae’s difficult personality. She knows that while Clae can be tactless and mean, he’s also an excellent teacher and each hard-won word of praise is honestly meant.
This debut twists fantasy conventions in notable ways. It’s set not in a medieval-style city, but a more modern one, with technology roughly equivalent to the 1930s. There are telephones, cars, trolleys, and bikes, along with somewhat modern kitchens. (Though some of the richer citizens power their tech with those magical amulets.) There is nothing like computer technology, though there is a complex water and sewer system. There are class differences: the haves live in the smaller, inner circles of the six walls that ring the city, and the have-nots reside in the outer circles—save for the military, who are stationed in the outer, sixth circle.
Laura is middle class, which means she can’t afford a car, and, though she’s bright enough to attend university, it’s a dream beyond her means. Being a Sweeper gives her a paycheck and, more importantly, a calling.
Another aspect of life in Amicae that echoes 1930s-era America is the way the city treats its women: despite the presence of a female police chief and a powerful city councilwoman, most of the society believes women should pursue no goals beyond marriage and children. Laura is fighting not only against this convention, but the prejudice engendered by her relative youth. Both prevent her from earning the respect of most anyone save Clae, and even he is grudging in his praise.
Laura is a fascinating character, full of self-doubt and insecurities, but also supremely competent and brave enough to face a horrendous death as part of her daily job. This story is largely her coming-of-age tale; as her worldview widens, she learns more about the monsters plaguing the city, and why the rest of Clae’s family of Sweepers perished or vanished, and about the other cities in this fantasy world. As Laura is the narrator, we watch the world open up through her eyes.
The bulk of the narrative follows Laura and Clae through a series of increasingly dangerous monster attacks, with Laura gaining confidence and experience along the way. My favorite sequence is an exhilarating one set aboard a train, as a monster takes over the baggage compartment just as Laura and Clae are without the usual weapons they would use to defeat it. The train, the weather, and other threats emerging from the abandoned lands beyond the train tracks (never mind the monster) work against them to heighten the tension.
Then, of course, things get worse. The final battle with the monsters is a knock-down, drag-out fight, as the creatures threaten to grow powerful enough to destroy the entire city from within. Laura must find a creative solution of her own, with the fate of the city at stake.
Author Mirah Bolender shows a knack for engaging worldbuilding, providing just enough context to her magic system and invented terms to spark the imagination, but not so much that it snags the plot, which unfolds is a series of terrifically fun, fast-paced episodes. But more than the fascinating setting, it’s Laura carries the reader along: as a protagonist, she’s no superhero. She’s imperfect, immature, jealous of her rivals, and ignorant of the dark reasons that require the Sweeper’s job to be kept secret.
She’s an unfinished character, and watching her grow into herself is one of the joys of the book. I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes from here.
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