Friday, September 7, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/7: Smoke and Mirrors

In recent years, a genre that has really come into the forefront of genre fiction, and one I have come to really enjoy, is urban fantasy. Horror has always existed on the fringe of the everyday; part of what makes something frightening is that it could happen to you. Science fiction might take place in the distant future, but by its actual definition, it has to have some grounding in science, and thus a touch of reality (as opposed to science fantasy, like Star Wars, which can play more fast and loose with things like physics). But for a lot of years, nearly all fantasy was either Tolkien-influenced high fantasy, with proud wizards and noble elves, or Howard-influenced low fantasy, with barbarians and savages. But urban fantasy is setting a fantastic element against the mundane, like, say, a wizard who operates out of a storefront in Chicago in a world that doesn't really believe in things that go bump in the night, even if they really do.

What Smoke and Mirrors, a recently concluded mini-series from IDW, does differently is it inverts the basic trope of urban fantasy: it sets the mundane against a fantastic background. The world the series is set in where magic drives everything. It's not a world that looks that different from our own, but what we would see as technology is powered by magic. House lights and heat are turned on by an incantation. The equivalent of tablets and smart phones are run by magic provided by the Trade Circle, which is pretty much Apple if the guy running it was part Steve Jobs and part Tom Riddle. It's just close enough to the real modern world for the reader to not feel like he or she is being tossed into the deep end of a different universe, but dissimilar enough to make the reader want to get to know it better.

And into this world drops Terry Ward. Terry is a native of "our" world, the world of iPhones and internal combustion engines. One day, he wakes up and he's in a different world. This is a classic fish out of water story. Terry has no ability to access the magic of this new world, but he has a particular advantage that helps him survive; Terry is an illusionist, a stage magician of not unreasonable skill. So, with those abilities, Terry is making a living of sorts performing on the streets, and then going home alone to a house with no power.

Terry's lonely world is broken when he meets Ethan Vernon. Ethan is a teenager who is going through a lot of teen angst and rebellion. He's living with a single mother who is going blind, and Ethan seems mad at the world. Ethan's mother is trying to deal with her handicap, and with her rebellious son, and their relationship is strained, despite clearly loving each other. Ethan's got a lot of talent with magic that is going to waste since he isn't applying himself, or so it seems. After running off from a school trip, he sees Terry performing on the street and is fascinated that he can't figure out the magic that is powering Terry's performance. The two reach an accord of sorts, and Terry takes Ethan on as an apprentice.

Its a set-up we've seen before, but one that's played very well here. Ethan is looking for a father figure, and Terry is looking for something to bring him more fully into the world. The two spend the series learning more about each other as Terry passes on his tricks and illusions. Mike Costa, the series writer, does an admirable job of building fully realized characters over the course of the series, really making the reader feel the distance these two outsiders feel from their world, and seeing them become not just master and apprentice, but friends. We see Ethan grow into his cleverness, and the possibility of more power than he imagines he had, and Terry finds the strength he needs to take the next step on his own journey.

But the series is more than just a tale of two people. In the first issue, the series starts out with a presentation on magic given by the head of the Trade Circle, Steven J. Carroll. Carroll is pretty clearly a Steve Jobs analogue, with his presentation looking like one of Jobs's classics, and has the same panache at Jobs at his best. But Carroll has another agenda. Carroll is working on experiments with new magics, magics that will elevate him even higher in the world. As he prepares for the roll out of Gesture, his secret project, he learns of Terry's seeming abilities to do magic with just a wave of his hand, and Carroll sets out to learn everything he can about how Terry has mastered this skill. Carroll isn't as three dimensional as Terry of Ethan, being a bit more of a typical Machiavellian villain, but he's a good one, and his selfishness stands counter to Terry's willingness to share with Ethan.

One element that really adds to this series, setting it above a lot of stories about illusionists is the involvement of Jon Armstrong, a professional illusionist. Armstrong clearly worked closely with Costa and artist Ryan Browne, as all of Terry's tricks have the ring of truth in how they're presented by him. The series makes the illusion an important facet of the story, and the idea that what we all look at as a trick, even a clever one, could be looked at in a world of real magic as the height of sorcery is one of the new, cool ideas that the series employs to great effect. Illusion, slight of hand, and misdirection all come into play in the climax of the story, so establishing the basis of illusion throughout the series is important. The back of the single issues also come with a little illusion for the reader to learn. I admit I've always been fascinated by stage magic, and I have one trick in my own repertoire, and although I haven't had a chance to try any of Armstrong's illusions, I look forward to giving them a whirl.

Smoke and Mirrors is a series that does a great job building its world, and is full of ideas that are new, which is something I don't see a lot of, as a seasoned and grizzled veteran of both the comic book and fantasy literature worlds. But the series truly lives and dies by the characterization of its two lead characters. Terry and Ethan are both likable, and they both go through changes by the end of the story. Its a satisfying ending, but one that leaves plenty of bits to be tied up in future stories featuring these characters. I look forward to seeing more of Terry's journey to find a way home, and Ethan growing into his power. I'm hoping that, someday, while I'm looking at the right hand, the left hand will sneak up and hand me another mini-series that's this good.

All five issues of Smoke and Mirrors are out and available at your local comic shop, and the trade should be out at the beginning of October.

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