What if, alongside all the other huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Manhattan's immigrant groups had included witches, Centaurs, and other figures from world folklore? That's the premise of Right Hand Magic, Nancy Collins's latest urban fantasy.
In search of a new studio at a reasonable price, struggling sculptor Tate stumbles across ad for a room in Golgotham, Manhattan's paranormal enclave. Her new landlord is Hexe, a six-fingered, purple-haired Kymeran. He's also Golgotham royalty, as his mother is the local Witch Queen. But he's keeping a low profile, determined to succeed as a benevolent, curse-reversing Right Hand magician. Tate quickly finds herself mixed up in the local intrigue. The housemates end up working together to protect a teenage were-cat from a mobster who's pitting shape-shifters against each other in illegal prize fights.
In Tate, Collins has created an appealing heroine. She's a sculptor, not a bad-ass hottie with a closet full of knives. It's refreshing to see an urban fantasy character who doesn't routinely decapitate five demons before breakfast. Collins also wisely confronts the financial elephant in the room and makes her a trust fund baby. Great deal or no, the economics make it tough for an artist to survive in Manhattan without independent income. (It's either that, or move to Bushwick.) And so we get the most dramatically rich vein of the story, which is a deep uneasiness with gentrification.
Tate loves her new neighborhood. It's a charming place to live and an inspiration to her work, and she meets all sorts of new friends. But the more she evangelizes her cheap, roomy studio to fellow human ("nump") artists, the faster gentrification comes to Golgotham. Hexe's Uncle Easu is prejudiced and cartoonish, but he's not wrong when he says, "First it's the psychics and the mediums. Then it's the ‘artists,' and then trust fund numpsters. Next thing you know, we're surrounded by chuffing numpies, gobbing away on those accursed cell phones and putting a Starbucks on every other corner. They'll gentrify us out of existence."
That's a sobering thought, because Collins has built a world that's vivid, vital, and a whole lot of fun. As best as I can tell, Golgotham overlaps with the old Five Points, but not so much that it displaces the more modern neighborhoods of Little Italy or Chinatown. Collins has sneaked a few extra blocks onto the island, room enough for a vibrant community tucked away in the vicinity of the former Five Points. The street plan and architecture doesn't seem to have changed since the early 19th century. It's an insular community, and a complication of prejudice and prickliness has kept out would-be gentrifiers.
Collins may have missed an narrative opportunity by keeping Golgotham so walled-off. A population of witches must have impacted the country's history—think of the other ethnic groups that have passed through lower Manhattan. It's also virtually impossible a near-autonomous neighborhood could exist in downtown Manhattan without some serious political muscle at City Hall. (Robert Moses would have taken this place as a personal affront and leveled it at the first opportunity.) Every Golgotham needs its Tammany. That said, Right Hand Magic is merely the beginning of a new series, so it makes sense the focus would be on introductions, rather than detailed politicking. The book's localism also keeps the story focused. Collins really shines when depicting some public space where Golgotham's magical denizens gather. Here's Tate's visit to Fly Market, where Kymerians gather to hawk their wares:
After leading me through a series of confusing turns, Hexe came to a halt in front of a small room only slightly larger than the average office worker's cubicle. Sandwiched between a magic candle peddler and a crystal ball pro shop, it didn't even have a real door, just a flap of old tapestry with a business card pinned to it. The card read FARO MOVING: IF I CAN'T MOVE IT, IT'S NOT YOURS.
The book is full of moments like this, blending elements of modern Manhattan with an earlier era of the city and adding a magical spin. It's a little bit Chinatown, some Fulton Fish Market, and a dash of Diagon Alley.
There's also a good bit of madcap randomness, along the lines of fantasists like Diana Wynn Jones. The upper floors of Hexe's house are a bit shifty, and the uncle who designed the house went missing somewhere upstairs. His other tenant is a geriatric oracle with an apartment full of cats. One of his buddies elopes with a Maenad barmaid. Among the local characters: Two motorcycle gangs, the Maiden Lane Amazons and the Odin Street Valkyries, former arch enemies whose leaders are now dating. The native cuisine consists of dishes like blackbird pie, parsnip and prune cake, and candied sea horses.
Unfortunately, Tate's male lead is underwhelming, and their romance is strangely perfunctory. Hexe is cute and he apparently smells good and his determination to strike out independent of his royal mother's influence is admirable. But it's not clear why he likes Tate, and it's equally mystifying why Tate suddenly falls for him. We seem to have a case of two attractive people in a house together. Maybe it works that way sometimes, but boning your landlord is a bit risky.
Ultimately, the action plot is only OK, and the romance is little more than serviceable. But the book is most entertaining when Tate is exploring Golgotham and familiarizing herself in her new home. Here's hoping the forthcoming installments build on this fascinating world, while perhaps fleshing out the supporting cast a bit more.