Blood Like Magic, Liselle Sambury (McElderry Books 978-1-53446-528-2, $19.99, 496pp, hc) June 2021. Cover by Thea Harvey.
In an intoxicating blend of science fiction and fantasy, author Liselle Sambury has written in Blood Like Magic a novel that embraces technological advances while wholly immersing the text with magic. Set in Toronto in the year 2049, teenager Voya Thomas has at last experienced her Calling – the moment when one of her ancestors comes forward and gives her a challenge she must achieve in order to receive her power. It is both exciting and terrifying, and also pretty much unavoidable. (For those rare members of witch families who do not receive a Calling the life forward is, at best, one of endless humiliation among friends and family. Failing at a Calling leads basically to banishment.) Voya is nervous but ready, right up until she is visited by her ancestor, Mama Jova, and forced to witness her brutal murder as an enslaved person. It is after that horror that the ancestor issues her command: Voya must find and destroy her first love or every member of her family will be stripped of its magic.
In the sprawling story that follows, Voya grapples with the fact that she has 30 days to fall in love and commit murder while her family falls into various camps of support. The difficult but less violent choice, to sacrifice their collective magic so that an innocent person can live, is deemed impossible, because as Voya quickly learns, one of her relatives is alive only because of the family’s magic. That is the first secret her Calling forces those she loves to reveal, but soon there are a cascade of long hidden events that are revealed in its wake.
In the midst of ferreting out what has long been hidden from her and her cousins, Voya moves forward on the challenge. Finding love is made easier through her lucky selection as a beta tester in a breakthrough matchmaking program about to hit the market. Her potential romance is hampered by the fact that the guy is a bit of a jerk (romance readers will gauge early on how this is going to go), but the weight of the entire Thomas family rests on Voya’s efforts, and so she makes one first move after another to forge a bond with Luc. Hovering in the background and sending frightening messages at the most inopportune of times is the frustratingly oblique ghost of Mama Jova, who will not let this challenge go.
As Voya gets ever closer to knowing all the things her family has been hiding, her choices seem to shrink. Can she really kill Luc to save her family? And if they become a family who murders for magic, is that a life that any of them will be able to bear? As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, there is also a ton of family drama, a lot of politics with the other witch families in town, and the fact that Voya’s best friend, also a witch, has been missing for months and no one will help her family, which is of a lower social status, to find her. As she becomes slowly consumed by fury and frustration, Voya finds herself inching closer to significant truths. She makes hard choices, incredibly hard choices, in the end – what an ending! – but she earns every bit of the knowledge she gains. From navigating corporate offices at a high tech firm to witnessing the horrors of blood magic, Sambury covers a lot of ground, but Blood Like Magic flies by. This is a page-turner in every sense of the word and nearly impossible to put down.
I marked so many passages of this novel that I wanted to note in my review, from all the wonderful cooking descriptions (the cookery deserves its own review), to friendships between the cousins, the fashion statements (one of Voya’s cousin is a designer), the complicated parental relationships (don’t get me started), to the disturbing manner in which corporations have control in Voya’s world, creating a modern colonialism that appears benign but is really (as she points out) very very wrong. Sambury manages to discuss some fascinating technology while also considering socio-economic status, racism, and the stark manner in which community differences can become amplified within groups who have far more in common than not (this is about magic, but quite relatable). Blood Like Magic is such a smart book on so many levels. I was swept away by Voya’s world and dearly hope that Sambury will build on what she has crafted here and give readers much more of the complicated Thomas family.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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