Return to Kat Howard’s Alex Award–winning world begun in An Unkindness of Magicians, a secret society of power-hungry magicians in New York City.
After taking down the source of the corruption of the Unseen World, Sydney is left with almost no magical ability. Feeling estranged from herself, she is determined to find a way back to her status as one of the world’s most dangerous magicians. Unfortunately, she needs to do this quickly: the House of Shadows, the hell on earth that shaped her into who she was, the place she sacrificed everything to destroy, is rebuilding itself.
“The House of shadows sits on bones. All of the sacrifices, all of the magicians who died in Shadows, they’re buried beneath the foundations. Bones hold magic.”
The magic of the Unseen World is acting strangely, faltering, bleeding out from the edges. Determined to keep the House of Shadows from returning to power and to defeat the magicians who want nothing more than to have it back, Sydney turns to extremes in a desperate attempt to regain her sacrificed magic. She is forced to decide what she will give up and what she will lose and whether what must be destroyed is not only the House of Shadows, but the Unseen World itself.
World Fantasy Award finalist Kat Howard has written a sequel that asks how you have a happily ever in a world that doesn’t want it, where the cost of that happiness may be too much to bear.
Release date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Print pages: 320
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Sleight of Shadows
The woman sitting at the table cast no shadow.
She should have. The light in the apartment drew grey veils from the coffee cup, empty, on the counter, the chair in which the woman sat, the small white candle in front of her.
It had been just over seven weeks—fifty-three days, exactly—since Sydney had given up her shadow in the final challenge of the Turning. Since she had asked Verenice Tenebrae to cut it from her body so she could sacrifice it to keep magic in the world.
In that time, she had grown accustomed to the lack of her shadow. It had been strange, at first, the absence. The first few days there had been a constant sense that something was missing. The half breath before she put a name, again, to what wasn’t there had felt—each time—stretched and strained.
But her shadow wasn’t her only loss. It wasn’t even the most important one, merely the symbol of what had been given up. When Sydney sacrificed her shadow, she sacrificed her magic. And even now, even now when she no longer reached for a spell in the same way that she used to—the automatic way that blood moved through her veins and breath moved in her lungs—she didn’t need to be reminded that that ability was gone. That absence was a constant ache. It lingered in her scars and in her bones, in the places where magic had been cut out of her. The loss was a reminder of what she had been.
Magic had been her entire life. It was her earliest memory, her first, her primary purpose. It was what she had been shaped for. It became the edge against which she honed herself, the means to all her ends. It had been hers—solely hers, not a weapon for the House of Shadows to use as it pleased—for so little time before it was gone.
She wanted it back.
She had a starting point. One remaining scrap. Not enough to do anything that she couldn’t more easily accomplish by flipping a switch. Not enough to distinguish her from a mundane person who’d been lucky enough to wander into one of the kinder corners of the Unseen World, and who had enough determination to remain there.
She could still light a candle. She had just enough magic to give her hope.
It was a cruel hope, one as sharp as the knife that had cut away her shadow and her magic. An ache to match the absence. But leaning into the sharp edge of the impossible was what she knew.
Sydney shook off her thoughts and focused on the candle in front of her. A small white tea light in a battered tin, the kind that was sold in bags of one hundred and smelled vaguely of vanilla and plastic. Simple. Basic.
Her first bag was nearly empty. She had others.
Sydney spoke the word that kindled the spell, and the candle lit, just as it always did. Even the first time after the loss of her shadow, and her magic with it. In that flickering moment, she had burned, too. Burned with the hope that she had been wrong, that her magic wasn’t gone, that everything would go back to normal. It hadn’t. Not that day, and not any of the days since.
An ache throbbed behind her eyes, and the taste of smoke coated her throat—the aftereffects of using magic making themselves known. They came on quicker now, one more reminder that things had changed.
Sydney focused again. Magic required preparation in a way that it never used to. Breathing in, she twisted her left hand, bent two fingers sharply. This was the second spell she tried every day. The spell that would extinguish the candle she had just lit.
Pain like fire licked along the frayed edges where her shadow had been cut away from her body. A phantom blade sliced its way across her bones, tracing over the places where her magic had once been carved out of her.
The candle flickered, dimmed.
Sydney gritted her teeth against the pain and waited, watched. Held her focus. Blood dripped from her nose. The candle guttered.
And went out.
Sydney scrubbed her blood from the kitchen table and threw the extinguished candle in the trash. Once was nothing. Coincidence. A draft in her apartment, an errant exhale. The pain where her shadow had been merely the itch of an amputated limb, the timing coincidence. Nothing more. She couldn’t let it be more, not without proof.
She took another candle from the bag, set it on the table.
She breathed in, spreading her awareness throughout her body, searching for anything that felt like magic, for anything that felt like change. For anything different at all. But there was nothing new, nothing beyond what she felt every time she cast this spell: her self, and the absence where her magic had been.
She spoke the word to light the candle.
It flared. A column of fire stretching almost to her ceiling, melting the wax in the tin into immediate nothingness, then extinguishing. The edges of her shadow white hot, as if they were being carved away by a thin knife.
Sydney placed her hands flat on her table, fingers starfished around the burnt-out—consumed—candle. She breathed out.
Her phone rang. One of the few numbers she had promised, always, to answer. “Grace? It’s not really a good—”
Grace’s voice thin and tight. “Sydney, something weird is happening. I’m in a car outside. You need to come now.”
The end of the Turning had seen House Prospero elevated to the head of the Unseen World. Which meant that—as well as the responsibility for House Prospero itself—would have been Sydney’s, had she not sacrificed her magic. She had been prepared to die in the course of the Turning, and her fight against the abomination that was the House of Shadows, and so Sydney had named Grace Valentine her heir. For the Unseen World, the loss of magic was equivalent to death.
She had not anticipated the circumstances of Grace’s inheritance but remained confident in her choice, especially now that she had seen Grace in her role. She felt more sorrow than she had expected to over the loss of House Prospero. Not for herself so much as for the House, which had genuinely tried, in the short time it had been hers, to be a place of welcome and refuge. But the House loved Grace as well.
She had no regret at all over not being forced to be in charge of the snarl of egos and entitlement that was the Unseen World. If that had been left up to her, she would have undone the entire thing.
She had thought about leaving after the dust of the Turning had settled—getting out of New York, away from the Unseen World. It might have been better, easier, had she gone away and not looked back. But she hadn’t even lived outside the House of Shadows for a full year. Everything, everyone she knew was here. Every time her finger hovered over the button to buy plane tickets, leaving had felt like one loss too many.
And so here she was, sitting in the back of a cab with Grace, on her way to something weird.
Windshield wipers thunked against the glass as tires whirred over rain-slick streets. The car’s defrost, the driver had assured them, only worked when the air conditioner was on, as it was now, at full blast. The cold air settled into Sydney’s joints, and she wished she had grabbed a warmer coat.
“So when you say weird,” she began, suspecting already what the answer would involve. Magic of some sort, doing something that skewed beyond unexpected and into alarming. She wasn’t quite sure why that meant she was needed, but Grace wasn’t prone to drama, so if she wanted Sydney with her, Sydney would trust that there was a good reason.
“It’ll be easier to explain once we’re there. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.” Tension held Grace in rigid lines. She had cast a series of spells as Sydney got in the car—to prevent the driver from overhearing them, to clear a path through traffic. She had tried to redirect the air-conditioning as well, but it really was stubbornly connected to the defrost.
“Nothing good, then.” Sydney’s hands still ached as if she had been casting far more complicated spells than a simple candle flicker. She curled them into fists to stop the shaking, pressed her fists into her thighs.
“No. Nothing good.” They rode the rest of the way in silence.
The scope of the nothing good began to unfold itself as the car stopped at Central Park. The two women raised umbrellas, and Sydney kept pace as Grace walked toward the reservoir. She knew the path. Had walked it again and again at the behest of the House of Shadows, then on her own once she had finally broken free. She had walked this way when she came to destroy the House of Shadows, to render it into rubble and free the sacrifices held inside, and then when she had made the mistake that had led to her own undoing, when she freed Shara from the island that bound her.
She had not come this way since.
They rounded the path, and she saw. “What in the actual fuck.” Not a question, a flat statement of disbelief, stark enough to freeze Grace’s hand partway through an unveiling spell.
“You can see it?”
“It’s not veiled.” The House of Shadows, the island it stood on, had been hidden before, magic drawn over it to keep it from mundane sight.
“It is, Syd. The spell’s in place.”
Had it been anything else, anything other than that island, full of the bones of the sacrifices who had died in the House of Shadows, their magic carved out of them, that island where now—somehow—walls were once again rising in pieces out of the dirt—Sydney might have found the fact that she could see through the spell interesting, as a data point. She might have paused to wonder what it meant. But as soon as the thought crossed her mind, she knew: “It wants me to see it.”
Unable to move or look away, she watched as broken stone slid across barren ground. “How?”
She had left the House of Shadows in ruins. Pulled it apart, unmade it with her magic. Separated stone from stone. She had left it for dead, and somehow it was resurrecting.
“Magic,” Grace said. “And I mean that as literally as possible. As far as I can tell, Shadows is rebuilding itself. Not because of outside magic. Because the pieces of the spell that created it are trying to come back together.”
“Magic wants that place to come back.” Bile rose in Sydney’s throat along with the words. But even as she spoke, the thought made a kind of sense.
Shadows had always had its own strange kind of agency. It had been capable of changing shape and altering its dimensions on a whim. Magic, especially big, long-running spells like the ones that had animated the House of Shadows had a sort of memory. They wanted to continue. That kind of magic meant not just pushing against entropy but turning it inside out and backward, and made order become preferable to chaos.
And magic never particularly cared how it was used. Only that it was.
“Can you feel it?” Sydney asked.
When Grace had become the head of the Unseen World, the Houses had mapped themselves onto her body. She could feel their presence, the warm hum of connected magic.
“No, I can’t.”
“That’s good, at least. If anything about this can be said to be good.”
“Sydney, I hate asking, but I need you to come out there with me. You know that place better than anyone.”
Sydney wanted, very much, to feel as if she could refuse. “I should have sunk that place when I left it.”
Grace called a boat from the depths of the lake. This summoning was different from the one Sydney had used to ferry herself back and forth when Shara had compelled her presence, but it was still similar enough to cause her to shudder as she stepped aboard. This was not a journey she had ever thought to make again, even with magic. Without… She set her jaw and forced her spine straight. She didn’t have the luxury of weakness.
The water was a dull, echoless pewter as Grace and Sydney sailed over it to where the House of Shadows once stood. As they drew closer, Sydney could hear the groan and scrape as its ruins tried to refit themselves. The sound was a nauseating wrongness.
“I hate this place. Everything about it. Even the ground feels haunted,” Grace said as they stepped ashore.
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Sydney said. “The House of Shadows literally sat on bones. There are bodies all over the island.”
Grace froze mid-step, then set her foot down very delicately. “What?”
“All of the sacrifices, all of the magicians who died in Shadows, they’re buried beneath the foundations. Bones hold magic—Shara wouldn’t have let that go to waste. Service to the House would last until it had extracted every scrap of magic that it could.”
“I hadn’t thought about that, but of course it makes sense. And is fantastically creepy.” Grace looked askance at the ground and then continued walking.
“Did you expect anything different from this place?”
“No, I can’t say that I did.”
The wind blew hollow, bitter and harsh, scattering dirt and detritus everywhere, reaching beneath the hem of Sydney’s jacket, into her sleeves. Shadows’ rebuilding didn’t look organized, at least not that she could tell. Chunks of ruins heaped together here and there, hulking up out of the ground at random, rather than in straight-lined walls. It didn’t look like a House, didn’t look like a building. Not yet, anyway. Still. It shouldn’t have been happening at all.
“The magic’s so sticky and thick that I feel like I’m walking through spiderwebs,” Grace said. “Everything clings.”
“I can taste it.” It clogged Sydney’s throat, dry as dust. Arid. “This is different than it was before.”
“That’s what I thought. But I wasn’t sure, and—” Grace swallowed the rest of the sentence.
“And I know Shadows better than anyone.” Sydney finished for her. She had lived there almost her entire life and been bound to the place even after she had left. Had been one of two magicians ever to earn her freedom from that binding. Had been the one who had known Shadows well enough to break it.
Now she was broken, and the House of Shadows was unbreaking itself, and that was even more bitter than the magic clogging her throat. That she could sense the magic this intensely felt like another kind of torment—like the House wanting her to. She hadn’t lost her ability to sense magic when she lost the ability to cast it, but this, being surrounded like this, felt like a kind of gloating.
The ground shifted under her feet as she walked, as if the reverberation of her steps through the layers of soil and bone disturbed them, as if the bones of the dead were reaching up for her in response. She placed her feet carefully—when Shadows had been whole, when she had been its prisoner, one of its favorite tricks had been to open the floor beneath her and send her plummeting. It had been one of the first ways she had learned to fight Shadows—to pit her will against that of the House and force her way out of where it had dropped her back to some temporarily safer place.
She pushed a loose piece of stone from a broken wall, listened to it crack and rattle as it fell to the ground. Waited for it to crawl its way back to where it had been.
But the stone stayed where it had fallen, and the next scrape of ruin over earth was two different hunks—a broken stair and what might have been a window or doorframe—coming together.
“Have you tried using magic to stop the rebuilding?” Sydney asked. The ground moved beneath her again. Not a tremble so much as a heartbeat. Soft, regular. Flickers of white, like candle flames, sparked at the edges of her vision.
Grace nodded. “It rebuilt as soon as I took it apart. Fast. Almost like it fed on the magic I used.”
Sydney swore, low and viciously.
“Agreed,” Grace said. “I don’t know what to do, Sydney.”
“Neither do I.”
Grace shivered in the cold. “The rain’s getting worse. We should go.”
Sydney stared back over the ruins and shook her head. “I should have drowned this place.”
But she wondered, as the boat ferried them back to the opposite shore, as she heard the echoing scrape of rock over bone recede behind her, if even that would have been enough.
There is a fountain at the heart of Central Park with a statue of an angel rising from it. Designed by Emma Stebbins and dedicated in 1873, she is called the Angel of the Waters. She holds a lily in her hand and was commissioned as a sign of blessing, of healing powers, of an end to the plague of cholera that had ravaged the city.
The statue is very recognizable, the showpiece of the elegant Bethesda Terrace at the heart of Central Park. It is a favorite spot of film crews craving a picturesque location shot and of lovers who wish a romantic setting to exchange promises in. A symbol as resonant as that has its own kind of inherent magic.
In the more recent past, that magical resonance had been taken advantage of, and the Angel used as a magical anchor for some of the foulest spells the Unseen World had known. She was made a conduit for the theft of power, a channel for suffering. She had crumbled under the weight of those spells and been repaired only by their end. And so once restored, she was also a symbol of promises made, and promises broken, and power no one should have.
For those who knew how to look. For those who were willing to see. For most people, even for the magicians who should have known differently, she was only a statue.
For a brief time after the statue was made whole again, it seemed as if things might have truly changed. As if the Unseen World might heal and grow into the better thing some hoped it could be. But then, one night not long after the broken ruins of the House of Shadows began to put themselves back together, magic coursed through the statue again. A new magic, but one familiar in its foulness. The spells of the House of Shadows reaching out and attempting to reestablish themselves. Overwhelmed, the lily cracked and fell from the hand of the Angel. That offering of hope, of peace, of continued growth and new life, shattered.
That shattering was not the only piece of strangeness to occur that night. Even as the wind scattered bits of the broken statue, a group of trees stretched and rose from the earth throughout Central Park. They unfurled into full growth almost as soon as they broke free from the soil. At the heart of each tree was a bone. A human bone. A piece of who those trees had once been.
Whisperings rose with them—the trees speaking their memories. Memories of loneliness, abandonment. Of a house made of shadows, and magic sharp as knives. Of pain, and then of death. It was a heartbreaking, haunting sound. The mournful voices of the trees were an ache to listen to, a veil of grief draped over skin. They permeated the park, inescapable.
Magic clouded the air like fog. Something was beginning.
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