Review: Magic or Die by J.M. Jackson

Rating: 2.25 stars
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Length: Novel 


Powerful empath James has only a few months to save the lives of five powerful, frighting people. Their powers are out of control and they are a danger to themselves, but, more importantly, to the rest of the world. There’s Ning, with powers of ice and wind, and possessed by a powerful and ancient demon; Chris, who can turn into a wolf of flame and ash; Camila, with more magics than any person should possess; Anabelle, possessed by a legion of demons, each driving her insane; and Isaiah, whose demon is one of the oldest and most powerful and who has to be kept in a medical coma to keep from being killed by his own powers. If James cannot help them learn to control their gifts, these young men and women, one by one, will be put down.

The CMRD is a Canadian organization in charge of overseeing, licensing, training, and disposing of dangerous magic users. The more James learns about these five people, and the plans the CMRD has for them, the unhappier he is. Miriam, an old acquaintance of James’ who once helped him with his own powers, is in charge of overseeing the dangerous group and wants James to work as many miracles as he can in as little time as possible… and each time James pushes, each time something happens she doesn’t like, the time he’s given shrinks more and more. Miriam has plans and won’t let James screw them up with his drinking, his smoking, or his debauchery. She pulled him out of the gutter for his powerful empathy.

While Ning is being sold to the UN for her gift with languages and Chris is to be sold to the army, Anabelle, Camila, and Isaiah all have more terrible fates planned for them. It’s possible the Bulgarian Coven may be encouraged to help Anabelle with her host of demons, but for powerful Camila and lovely, infuriating Isaiah? Experimentation, captivity, or even worse. James already lost one boyfriend to the CMRD when Cody was euthanized — and Miriam forced him to watch — and he can’t lose anyone else. Especially not as he and Isaiah get closer. When the young man reaches out in his astral form begging James to save him, James feels he has no choice but to wake the sleeping prince, even knowing that Isaiah has no control over his dangerous magic. After all, that’s what James is here for.

If he can help them control their powers and learn to work together, perhaps they have a chance. With his sister’s madness and descent into blood magic being held over his head as insurance, James is willing to do anything, try anything to help these young men and women. Just not in the way Miriam expects. It’s no longer time for school. Now it’s time for a great escape.

The idea behind this story is a good one, compelling and instantly hooking me in with the action and clever plotting of The Great Escape combined with the drama and magic Prisoner of Azkaban. Powerful, misunderstood people — who may or may not be evil depending on their inner demons and if they have the strength to resist them — planning an escape from a despotic prison warden unfairly holding them in impossible cages. Unfortunately, the idea is the only part of the story that worked. The actual execution of it didn’t.

James is an empath with the ability to control the minds of other people, as well as to force his emotions upon them. He’s also able to make force fields, which puts him in the Psyche class of magic. (The others being elemental, which allows for the control of elements, and arcane, which is demon magic.) He begins the book drunk and with a smoking habit, both quickly taken care of by the CMRD. Days and weeks pass with the briefest of mentions, but even for James, time is a strange thing as he’s detoxing. James is regularly visited by the ever-decaying vision of Cody, a one-time boyfriend who haunts him with angry, hurt promises and threats. None of which does more than annoy James.

James loved Cody, who he met when the two of them were kept at CMRD. They kept their relationship a secret and James tried to help him contain his own rogue powers by using his empathy, but failed. In the end, that failure cost Cody his life as the CMRD — and Miriam — made the choice to kill Cody before he could kill anyone else. James was forced to watch as a lesson, one he’s never forgotten and never forgiven Miriam for. It makes his efforts with the young men and women, and Isaiah, all the more important as there is little doubt Miriam would punish him for another failure by forcing him to watch as yet more magic users were snuffed out because they were unable to control their powers.

When James sees Isaiah’s file for the first time he’s instantly smitten. Isaiah is cute, after all. Not only that, when he makes contact with Isaiah’s astral form, it seems that Isaiah, too, sees something in James. He flirts shamelessly with the empath, all but climbing him. When it turns out that during much of that first meeting, James is actually interacting with the demon possessing Isaiah, it doesn’t change James impression of the young man or alter his interest in him. Fortunately, Isaiah — the real Isaiah — is just as taken with James as his demon is, and the two quickly become lovers.

Isaiah winks like it’s going out of style, and that forceful flirtatiousness is pretty much who he is, both as a demon and a human. He’s unpleasant, clingy, a bit of a stalker who pushes for a relationship without first looking to see if James wants one — attraction does not equal consent, unless you’re Isaiah — and doesn’t care for boundaries at all. When James, dealing with aftermath of an occult ritual, asks for a moment to himself, Isaiah decides to ignore him, saying: “[F]uck you and your boundaries.” He doesn’t care what James is going through; he wants James, and that’s all he cares about. Other than that, the other students are simply nice, or sweet, with bursts of anger. The one student who has the faintest glimmer of a personality is Camila, but she’s often on the sidelines of the story until her one shining moment.

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Camila has bouts of depression, rage, and anger — as well as playfulness and snark. When she gives her life to save the others, it comes out of nowhere. The only time it’s mentioned that Camila has clairvoyance is as she lays dying, telling them that she has this heretofore ignored and unknown power. The she dies for no reason. There was no purpose to her death as it neither advanced the story nor the plot. If she’d been given a greater role, or had more interaction with the rest of the characters, her death might have had some emotional impact. Instead, it just happens and the world moves on. No one cares, though James does give a token “it’s too bad she died’” comment.

James isn’t a good teacher and so many of his efforts to help the kids come in the form of calming them down and then letting them play with their powers. There are a few mentions of conversations, but because so much time is brushed past, those scenes are only vague mentions that we never get to see, and so it’s hard to take it seriously when the students, to a person, declare their support and love for James. It feels unearned and false. It serves the purpose of the story to have them all bond, but there was never a moment of hostility or even uncertainty. The students went from being okay with each other and James, to being good with no conflict, drama, or character growth. Sadly, no character in this book seems to care much about anything, not even escaping. There is no growth, no character arcs or development, which makes it hard for me to care that these kids are imprisoned and destined to die, or to care if they succeed in their efforts to escape. They are generic and uninteresting, relying on their magical powers to make up for the lack of personality and it just doesn’t work.

There is a scene where James’ students are determined to help him get rid of the ghost of Cody — who it turns out is a real ghost and not just a guilty memory — where James has a chance to say goodbye. He doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to care at all that it’s happening. He doesn’t care when it goes wrong, though he does take a moment afterwords to try to come to terms with both what happened to Cody and what happened to Anabelle. Much like his drinking or his smoking, Cody being gone feels like simply an event that happened in the story. The only part of that scene that did work was Anabelle’s reasons for performing the ritual. Her actions almost made up for the nothing of a scene, but it was too little, too late.

The shame of it is that the idea was there, but all the pieces missed fitting together by inches. The magic powers of this world had promise, especially the arcane powers where a person is possessed by a demon (though how that happened or why is never discovered) and through bonding to the demon ends up able to share their bodies with the human. In the scenes showing off this power, the demons are then able to come forth and take over the mortal body to use their demonic magics, even though we’re told in the exposition that it’s the human being able to use the demon’s magic. Much of the magic feels like lazy hand-waving. Anything and everything can be done, so it is done. There are no rules, no rhyme, no reason to anything. Adding to that there are so many contradictions, so many places where it feels like ideas were changed to suit a new vision of the world and the characters without going back to check for continuity or plausibility.

There are also many places where there are no explanations regarding characters and plot, leaving the reader to make guesses. I have no idea what the CMRD actually stands for since it’s never actually said in the book. As the book takes place in Canada and magic is involved, my best guess was “Canadian Magic Research and Development.” I don’t know if Miriam was a teacher, a counselor, or a friend of James, since it’s never said. There are moments they seem to be almost equals in age, but then James thinks of her as an old woman. She helped him with his powers, made certain he watched as Cody was killed, knows where his sister is, threatens him all the time, and yet visits for dinner. The actions are fine, but the tone is inconstant in each encounter, shifting from friends to enemies for no real reason. To be honest, the book reads more like a nearly finished draft that needs work rather than a finished book. The writing isn’t bad, but there are issues with typos, poor word choices, and grammatical errors.

The ending was a shambles. Here the author had a chance to show us how powerful these people were, to show how they’d bonded as a group, how they worked to overcome all obstacles to fight for their freedom, but it ended up being a tepid chapter with tired action and horror tropes. Guards died, and then didn’t, only to have some of them die again. No one cared that lives were lost and there was no cost to the magic users for spending their powers, no sense of accomplishment. Adding to that, these all-powerful magic users then get in a car and drive to a diner for lunch. I mean, it’s not like they’ve just killed a bunch of people and escaped a government facility or anything. Then James wants to go back to his apartment. One of the demons gives Annabelle a vision of armed men waiting for them outside James’ apartment in an effort to stop James from acting on the impulse. Yet the end of the book has James behaving in the most asinine fashion as he just has to go to his apartment (never mind the government agents lying in wait), because, as James says:  “That was hours ago!” While he was never a genius in the rest of the book, the ending is insulting. Knowing Miriam knows where he lives, knowing there are armed men waiting for him, why would he go back? It felt contrived to get some plot points to work. It’s poor plotting and it was a bad end to a not-very good book. The author cheated the reader, cheated the character, and cheated their own story with the ending.

This is the first book in a series, so there’s a chance the second book might be better. Until then, however, skip this one.

elizabeth sig

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