One has to wonder if Devon Monk is finally moving toward the resolution of her Allie Beckstrom urban fantasy series. The creation of a new world with the "Age of Steam" series speaks to that, as does the fact that her latest Beckstrom novel, Magic on the Line, ends in the first cliffhanger I've seen in this series. Well, maybe not a cliffhanger per se, but it ends with the series going off in a radical new direction, sort of like part three of a four-part Dr. Who episode. It will be interesting to see what Monk does with it as it moves forward. This installment is excellent, though not quite as good as the previous two.
Things are getting hairy in Portland, Oregon. The Authority (the organization that regulates the use of magic in a city) is in disarray. Some members have gone over to the other side, others have been killed or wounded. The head office in the Northwest is not happy with the way this particular chapter has been run and has sent Bartholomew Wray down to put things right. His method of doing things rubs Allie, her lover, Zayvion Jones, and many other members the wrong way. It doesn't help that dark magic is spreading and leaking all over the city, dead magic users are rising from their graves, and Allie's powers are making her sick every time she uses them. Something's got to give; in this novel, something finally does.
Finally the series has a sense of movement. While each individual book has been great, building and growing the characters, the overarching plot seemed not to have an end in sight. Things changed without moving forward that much. In Magic on the Line, however, the tension is thick as the rival factions within the Authority butt heads. Wray is portrayed as a weasel from his first scene, where he and his Blood Mage are interrogate Allie and the other magic-users who were involved in the prison fight at the end of the last book.
Wray lacks any sense of nuance. In this series, where even the bad guys are three-dimensional and have their own agendas, I can forgive Monk this one conceit. There's still some mystery with Wray, though. Is he merely a ruthless, arrogant bureaucrat who has his own view of how things should run and stomps anybody who gets in his way? Or does he have his own thing going on as well?
Characterization and plot get the reader through Magic on the Line, because there isn't a heck of a lot of action in it (unlike previous books). Instead, we get internecine politics within the Authority, how it affects our heroes and their relationships with each other, and what is going on with Allie's magic. Every time she tries to cast the simplest spell, she becomes sick and nearly incapacitated. The ongoing mystery of that coincides pretty well with the politics, especially when it becomes known that dark magic is leaking out of the magic wells around Portland and Wray refuses to do anything about them. Is this why Allie's getting sick?
While Monk's characterization skills are top-notch as always, I question one aspect of her plotting that brings Magic on the Line down a peg. Very early in the book, Allie's bag is stolen. She recovers it and doesn't think much of it. The way Monk writes it, and the events that occur subsequent to her retrieving her bag, make what's going on completely obvious even if you don't know exactly why. I spent 300 pages knowing approximately what was going on and feeling like Allie should have figured it out about 150 pages ago. Monk doesn't usually employ plot points this obvious, and this one disappoints.
But when one bad plot point is really the only negative thing you can say about a book, you know you're in for a good read. Monk masterfully writes the various personal relationships in the novel. Allie and Zayvion make a great team, both as Authority members and as lovers. Their relationship shines off the page. The sexual tension between Shame and Terric is palpable, heightened by their magical bond (Shame isn't gay and Terric is, which really makes their closeness uncomfortable for Shame). The many other characters are all fully fleshed and interesting to read about.
We've been with these characters through seven books now, and with each book we grow to love them more. Magic on the Line is another great novel in the series.