Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner
Onna can write the parameters of a spell faster than any of the young men in her village school. But despite her incredible abilities, she’s denied a place at the nation’s premier arcane academy. Undaunted, she sails to the bustling city-state of Hexos, hoping to find a place at a university where they don’t think there’s anything untoward about providing a woman with a magical education. But as soon as Onna arrives, she’s drawn into the mysterious murder of four trolls.
Tsira is a troll who never quite fit into her clan, despite being the leader’s daughter. She decides to strike out on her own and look for work in a human city, but on her way she stumbles upon the body of a half-dead human soldier in the snow. As she slowly nurses him back to health, an unlikely bond forms between them, one that is tested when an unknown mage makes an attempt on Tsira’s life. Soon, unbeknownst to each other, Onna and Tsira both begin devoting their considerable talents to finding out who is targeting trolls, before their homeland is torn apart…
TITLE: Unnatural Magic
AUTHOR: C.M. Waggoner with Shiromi Arserio (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: Blackstone Publishing/Blackstone Audio Inc.
LENGTH: 400 pages (13 hours 43 minutes)
GENRE: Fantasy, Historical
Queer Rep Summary: Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s), Bi/Pan Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Trans Main Character(s).
UNNATURAL MAGIC explores sexism and racism in a fantasy setting, following a human girl trying to learn magic when her brilliance is seen as threatening rather than extraordinary, a troll trying to figure out what she wants (given her mother's expectations) and the human man she finds in the snow and nurses back to health. Eventually, they all end up working to try and stop a series of murders of trolls by humans, which is a recently brutal escalation of long-simmering resentment between their two peoples.
Onna's storyline involves sexist expectations of her as a girl, not quite yet a woman. The whole reason she leaves her home country is because she was denied entry to a magical academy because the examiners dismissed her as a village girl. Her class was less of a factor than her gender, but the combination of the two meant they ignored her on a technicality.
This is the first book in what is thus far a set of two books in the same world. This one doesn’t seem to be specifically setting up anything to be resolved later, but I suspect that if and when I do read the next one I might realize things I didn’t notice on this read through. For now, this functions as a stand-alone book and can be treated as such. It resolves its own major plot points and while it gives an idea of what the characters may do next, it's in the broad strokes of the trajectories of their lives, not in way that specifically teases a sequel. There’s been a series of murders of trolls, spread across a pretty large area, but it seem that the humans of various regions don’t know that the problem is more widespread. While wealthy and well-connected trolls are at the highest levels of society with a great deal of control, individual trolls are being seemingly randomly murdered and their bodies mutilated for some unknown purpose. Onna becomes involved in the investigation as part of pursuing her magical studies. Tsira (who is half-troll and half-human) and the human she rescued end up working together to try and track down the murderers after someone close to Tsira is killed.
I love the relationship between Sara and her Pink (the human man she found in the snow). More than any individual facet of the dynamic between them, I like how they continually work at their relationship in a way that makes sense, but also shows that it’s some thing that takes work to maintain. They don’t always understand each other perfectly, but they end up finding a cadence that works for them and gives them the tools to deal with whatever happens.
The trolls have a system of social roles that are separate from gender in a way that doesn’t neatly map onto human conceptions of sex and gender. To them, a human system that’s based on anatomy seems completely nonsensical. I put a lot of thought into how to denote the kinds of queer rep rep contained in the book. Ultimately, I think the best analog for is Tsira as genderqueer and trans, because even though that definitely does not perfectly map onto how she would describe herself, it is the most analogous language I have to denote the kind of character she is and the way she is understood (or not) by the humans around her.
There's a lot of excellent worldbuilding. There’s little things like how those who do know of Onna's home, as she gets further away, know of it because it has a pencil eraser factory. Eventually, they only know about the factory and haven't heard of her village at all. I found that to be a fun detail, and her reaction to each new mention changes throughout the book as she hears it over and over. As for the broader worldbuilding, the more foundational element is the way that the magic is done through a form of advanced mathematics involving specify parameters for what will be affected by the spell. It’s a bit like making calculus magic, and the book never attempts to teach any particular magical equation because the process is the point, not the details. It means that in practical terms, the role that magic can play in the book is extremely flexible, able to be adapted for the needs of the plot, but also having limitations in a way that never feel contrived. I also noticed the while way the humans have sexism is a manner that I find broadly familiar, there are a little things that make it clear that it’s not meant to be a direct copy of the way the problems would play out in the real world. One of these little ways is that the human men are frequently described as wearing skirts. It's a little way of making it clear that this isn't just Earth with magic added, but a wholly different place which has broadly similar problems that play out in its own particular ways. It’s nearly the end of the book before the two main plot threads converge. It lends some sense of scale how wide flung the troll murders are, spanning countries and at least one sea voyage.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and will likely pick up the other book set in this world. This seems like a hidden gem, and I hope more people try it.
Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, racism, classism, sexism, hate crime, blood, gore, violence, murder, death.
Moderate CW for pregnancy, sexual content, religious bigotry, racial slurs, vomit, alcohol, fire/fire injury, child abuse, confinement, chronic illness, injury detail, medical content, medical trauma, animal death, child death.
Minor CW for infertility, misgendering, drug use, drug abuse, physical abuse, neglect, excrement, war, suicide.