Intent: A Review of Blood Like Magic, by Liselle Sambury

            Witchcraft in fiction is an incredible variable, mutable tool in storytelling, although not every fantasy story, or story with magic present, contains witchcraft.  It is one of those things where no one can agree on a single definition, aside from witches mostly being female or female led.  Even region of the world has its own folklore regarding witches, going back thousands of years.  In some, witches are benevolent, helping their communities with potions and spells.  In others, witches made deals with the devil in the pursuit of power and influence.  While authors do pull on some of that, depending on where they decide to set their stories, the lack of a single definition of witchcraft allows writers to create new takes on it, iterating and innovating from story to story. 

            Blood Like Magic is the debut novel of writer Liselle Sambury, and is a modern take on witches and magic.  Or, rather, a futuristic take as the novel is set roughly twenty years into the future, where corporations have become even more powerful, but society has progressed to the point where bigotry such as racism or transphobia, while always ever present, have lost much of their cruel hold.  Sambury herself is Trinidadian-Canadian and originally lived in Toronto, which she seems to have heavily drawn upon for this book.  Blood Like Magic is primarily set in a futuristic Toronto and Etobicoke and is a tale of magic, family bonds, and romance in impossible situations.  According to Sambury’s author biography, “her writing can be described as ‘messy Black girls in fantasy situations’”, and Blood Like Magic absolutely falls into that category in the best of ways.  The characters, for the most part, feel very real.  They do not always make the best decisions, but the ones that best fit their personalities, wants, the information available to them.  Of course, that is assuming they make a decision at all.

            The novel follows Voya Thomas, and is told from her first-person point-of-view, meaning we are privy to all of her thoughts and feelings and live entirely in her head throughout the story.  Voya—sometimes just called Vo—is a teenage member of the Thomas’, a family of Black witches living in Etobicoke, part of Toronto.  In her early narration, Voya describes how the Thomas family were originally enslaved in the United States, but were able to magically transport their entire house into Canada to escape, carving out a life for themselves within a greater magical community.  Blood Like Magic follows Voya as she embarks on her Calling, a ritual where a witch first awakens to her powers and is given a task by the spirit of one of their ancestors.  Pass, and you not only gain the ability to wield magic, but also receive a unique magical gift.  Fail, and magic is forever lost to you.  For someone like Voya, who struggles with any sort of decision making when it comes to herself, the thought of her Calling is terrifying.  As one might guess from the title, blood is inherently tied to magic, to the point where it powers every aspect of magic.  In this story, magic cannot happen without blood being spilled in some way.  As Voya drives home throughout the course of the story, magic is blood and intent.

            The early portion of the novel takes its time introducing us to Voya and her family, providing a lot of much-needed characterization that will inform the entire story going forward.  We also meet the few major characters outside the family early on, including one who becomes central to the plot.  But the main plot does not really start moving until Voya receives her Calling.  During a ritual where the entire family is present, Voya is visited by Mama Jova, an ancestor who had been enslaved in life.  After sharing a vision of the cruelties Jova had suffered in live, she provides Voya with her task, along with some added complications.  If she fails, not only will Voya forever lose her magical potential, but her entire family will lose their magic.  Just that would be a high stake, and is rather similar to the recent film, Encanto, but Voya’s task is to destroy her first love, which she and her entire take to mean that Voya must murder the first person she romantically loved.  Coincidentally, Voya had also been offered a spot in a beta test for an app which pairs people with their best genetic matches, meaning she already has a potential target when the task is given.  The majority of the novel follows Voya as she simultaneously tries to fall in love with her match Luc, and prepare herself to commit murder to save her family’s magic.

            Another large part of the story, present throughout but not directly addressed until Voya has had some time to mature, is the idea of heritage.  From the start, the book makes it clear that magical ability is inherently tied to the ancestors.  They are the ones who bestow magical gifts, can grant the occasional wish, and, as shown by Mama Jova, can even take magic away if the need arises.  The witches in the story ensure that they are connected as possible to their ancestry, to the point where generations of families live under one roof and certain surnames are passed down, keeping the remembrance present.  Meanwhile, the few non-magical characters, including Luc, are shown to be rather disconnected from their heritage.  Luc is the sponsor child of a powerful CEO and does not get along with his family back in Mexico.  Rather than look to the past for answers, his eyes are firmly set on the future and himself.  Keeping the theme of heritage relevant, a major plot even is Voya entering a heritage cooking competition featuring her modern takes on traditional Trinidadian cuisine, while the Toronto Caribana festival also plays a large role throughout the story.  Having such a strong connection to one’s family history and origins is a gift, one taken for granted by many.

            While Blood Like Magic is overall a good read, it is not without its fair share of criticisms.  After a strong start to the story, the entire Thomas family takes it at face value that to destroy one’s first love means to murder their first crush.  It takes the story much too long to finally start questioning and interpreting the actual meaning of the task.  “Destroy” is this context is a very broad term.  While it could certainly mean kill, it could just as easily mean ruining someone’s life.  Savvy readers will figure out right away which route the book takes in that regard.  Further, a first love may not necessarily be a person.  One could love cooking or reader long before loving another human being.  More morbidly, a first love could be a pet, or even a stranger such as a celebrity.  It takes until nearly the end of the story for Voya to question whether the task actually refers to Luc, but never once considers that her first love might not even be a person.  Her love of, and connection to, cooking is well established throughout the story, and the book could have had the task refer to food in some way instead.  Aside from those quibbles, Blood Like Magic is just slightly too long, which leads to a middle section where the pace slows somewhat, although it never stops.

            And yet, that slower middle section is all in service to the incredibly strong ending of this novel.  Throughout the book, Voya struggles with making her own choices.  Not just in regards to her monumental task, but also the small things.  Once she takes a little more agency and starts making her own decisions, the book kicks into overdrive, delivering a tense and exciting finale as everything comes to a head.  Blood Like Magic is a perfectly contained book as well, and Sambury could have left the story her, choosing to move onto other projects, as interesting as it would be to see Voya’s future.  Luckily for readers, she has decided to continue the story in Blood Like Fate, which is set to release later this year.  Overall, Blood Like Magic is a very good read, and new readers will not be disappointed in their choice.

Blood Like Magic can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 19 days

Next on the List: Critical Role: Vox Machina – Kith and Kin, by Marieke Nijkamp

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