Book Review: Arcana by Paul Kane

“ … a magical story with complex protagonists to root for and dictatorial villains to despise. And a story in which all fans of rich, urban fantasies can lose themselves.”

 

Paul Kane has been passionate about horror, science fiction, and fantasy from a very young age and has carried this into adulthood and his own writing. His first mass market novel, Arrowhead (Abaddon/Rebellion, 2008), a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Robin Hood legend, served as the first in a trilogy. And bestselling novel Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell (Solaris, 2016), pitted Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective against Clive Barker’s Cenobites. He recently released a dark fantasy novel, Before (Grey Matter Press, 2017), and has once again utilised elements of dark fantasy for his latest novel. He is also the author of numerous other novels, novellas and collections, as well as contributing to many anthologies.

In an alternate version of Britain, in a world where magic is very real and very illegal, police officer Callum McGuire is promoted to the anti-magic unit known as M-Forcers. Along with the vast majority of the population, Callum has been brainwashed since birth to distrust magic and magic-users. The witch hunts as led by Matthew Hopkins in the 1600s never ended, and are now led by Nero Stark and his second-in-command Sherman Pryce, men who take great pleasure in their sadistic duties. It doesn’t take long for Callum to become disillusioned with the work of the M-Forcers as they hunt a seemingly “terrorist” group of magic-users known as Arcana, believed to be responsible for a series of attacks against the general population, despite their vow of non-violence.

Along with the increasingly barbaric practices of the M-Forcers, Callum’s mind is further swayed when he meets neighbour Fern. A medical emergency with the child of neighbours brings reclusive nurse Fern to the attention of Callum, much to the former’s initial annoyance. It seems that she has something to hide and the scrutiny of a police officer is the last thing she needs, especially an M-Forcer. But, after a particularly disastrous mission for the M-Forcers, and with Callum still adjusting to his new role, he finds his fate tied to Fern’s. And when an old Arcana prophecy comes to light, the tension builds to an explosive climax.

As with earlier work, Kane’s ability to create compelling characters plays a major part in the success of this story. Protagonist Callum begins the story as just another cog in the machine, complete with a programmed hatred for magic-users and all that they stand for, as he has been taught. But he grows throughout the book, eventually discovering the truth for himself. He does come across as whiny and indecisive at times; even when faced with overwhelming evidence that challenges his preconceived notions about Arcana, he continues to yearn for the approval of his superiors and fellow officers. But, thanks to the determined efforts of Fern and Master Unwin, he eventually escapes his programming. Fern is depicted as a strong woman who should not be messed with and, given some painful and personal repercussions of the M-Forcers work, she proves far deeper than just a damsel in distress or a sidekick. Arcana proves to be a fractious organisation, especially as the prophecy plot develops and some members disagree with Master Unwin’s steadfast stance. Kane explores this confrontation to provide drama on a more personal level, as well as the action on a surface level.

Antagonists Stark and Pryce are suitably menacing; whereas some villains tend to have some underlying reasons that may make them and their motivations relatable or understandable, Kane opts to portray them as dictators and monsters. It works within the frame of the story, with the magic-users persecuted by the general public thanks to the spread of fear and misinformation coming from Stark. It is reminiscent of the treatment of minority groups through the ages and, whether intentional or not, it compels the reader to feel sympathy for Arcana, and hatred for the fascistic leaders of the country.

Stories concerning magic use in a present-day setting don’t often show the divide between magic-users and non magic-users in such a way. Often, magic is held by a minority, but usually without the knowledge of the general population. In Arcana, Kane uses the acceptance of magic to highlight the way in which human beings can be manipulated by those in power to oppress and fear that which they do not understand. It is a story as much about the human condition and politics as it is about fantasy and magic. Kane has constructed a dark and ominous world, not so far removed from our own, but has given those persecuted characters a beacon to light the dark. Throughout the 400 pages he has created a magical story with complex protagonists to root for and dictatorial villains to despise. And a story in which all fans of rich, urban fantasies can lose themselves.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: WordFire Press
Paperback: 400 (pps)
Release Date: 11 January 2019

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