I want to sit J S Kelley down, look into their eyes and assure them that the world desperately needs a Gutter Mage series.
Okay, so maybe by “the world” I mean “I” but this book was just so much fantastic fun! Crossing an original fantasy concept with a hardboiled mystery with distinct Western elements, spiced up with excellent repartee and a bisexual heroine with equal amounts self-awareness and depth, this book just absolutely dazzled me. Our heroine Rosalind (named like all the other characters after the Shakespearean) is better known by the disparaging moniker Gutter Mage, tho no one’s ever called her that to her face twice. Earning a living as a fixer with the help of her childhood friend and business partner Lysander, she accepts a lucrative job that requires more than the usual amount of discretion.
Lord Edmund of House Ariel has recently become a proud parent, but his son has been kidnapped in what looks like an elaborate plan hatched by some very skilled mages, presumably of the upstart new Alath Guild. As there’s nothing more Rosalind enjoys than sticking it to some Guild Mages — and since Lysander really wants to build up his nest egg so that he and his lovely wife Portia can finally start expanding their family — this looks like the perfect case for them, with Lysander’s brawn and social skills backing up Roz’s considerable magical capabilities. But something smells fishy almost from the very start, and the further Roz and Lysander investigate, the greater the likelihood that they’re being lied to, and that the mastermind behind all this is the person Roz least wants to see in all the world.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because there are so many excellent surprises, but I can say that it thoughtfully examines trauma and rage in ways that are miles ahead of most genre literature. Roz’s struggle to come to terms with her past and with her swiftly tilting present are written with honesty and empathy, and with few easy answers. The only place that the writing ever faltered was in the climax, I felt, which was given shorter shrift than it deserved. I wanted to revel in all Roz’s feelings and observations, I wanted to stay and examine her every move in rich detail. While the relatively fast pace was in keeping with most of the rest of the book, I felt this was a missed opportunity to really gut punch the reader with the culmination of all the emotion that had led us to this point.
But that is literally the only criticism I have of this terrific book. Roz is so complicated and real, and the stuff she goes through so engrossing that I am desperate to read more of her and this fantasy world as it grapples with the ramifications of what she uncovers in the course of her investigations. Deep, diverse and just downright delightful, Gutter Mage has been one of the year’s best surprise discoveries for me. More, more, more please!
Gutter Mage by J. S. Kelley was published September 21 2021 by Gallery/Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including