Good morning, all! I am giving a fair warning up top that, despite being super excited about receiving this ARC from Netgalley and Matador, Ordinary Miracles fell flat for me, in more ways than one. I generally dislike giving bad reviews because I feel that one person’s opinion shouldn’t inform the decision of other people’s readership, but I can’t in good conscious recommend this book to a wide variety of readers. I will say that I did finish the book, so this review is based in its entirety. I hope this review remains unbiased enough for you to decide for yourself.
From the Publisher:
A train crashes at Paddington station. What follows is a series of dangerous and deadly magical incidents that no one could have predicted…
When wizard Mike Frost undergoes an unexpected elevation in his magical skills, he is sent to a training course to cultivate his newfound powers. But it soon becomes apparent that a deadly force is following his every move, using his power to launch devastating attacks across the UK.
Danger mounts, and it seems as though nothing can protect Mike and his friends. Time is running out. Can anyone find and stop those responsible before it’s too late?
This is perhaps not the best synopsis, though it is concise. It is present-day UK, and Mike is a wizard with an earth affinity (this is relevant in general). He witnesses a train crash in which the train literally appears from nowhere and disappears after doing mayhem and death, and knows that only someone like him could have committed this act. Magic is present in this world, but not talked about much, and the magic practitioners prefer it that way. When more incidents similar to the train begin to crop up all over the UK, it is up to Mike, a band of his friends from wizarding university, and the wizarding higher-ups, in conjunction with local law enforcement “in the know,” to determine what is going on.
However, Mike and his wizard partner / magical soulmate (in the non-romantic sense), Sam, are more connected to these incidents than originally thought, and now only they can use that connection to find out who is committing these horrible acts.
What I Liked:
I am going to be doing this review a little more organically, to try and keep it coherent. One thing that I think Carey did well was the rudimentaries of his premise and his worldbuild. Ordinary Miracles opens with a bang (literally), as a train crashes into Paddington Station and disappears. We find out rapidly that magic is real, our character is a wizard, there are universities for wizards throughout the UK, and there is a governing body equipped with all of the necessities for containment – a PR department, cleanup crew, etc. Magic practitioners that go to university end up generally doing something helpful and practical as a career (our protagonist, Mike, is an earth affinity, and plans to help contain oil spills and save the earth), and their “levels” in school are determined by raw power combined with skill.
The magical system is intriguing, because Carey attempts to infuse some science into how magic works. The “magical” part of the brain is essentially an unlocked portion of the brain that not everyone has access to, and the ability to manipulate the elements is explained through physics, generally. Healers, when displayed in Ordinary Miracles, don’t have miracle cures, but rather work with the body’s natural processes and just help those processes along; most of the healer wizards are also real doctors in “real life.” I also enjoy the way that the wizards had magical partners (honestly, the term non-romantic soulmate seems to fit best here), where you can draw on the other person’s strengths to bolster your own magical talent and have rudimentary abilities to connect telepathically.
Lastly, I enjoyed the geography and authentic British voice, essentially a walking tour of the UK, from Paddington to London to the countryside and language filled with fun British euphemisms and wry humor. Carey clearly knows the UK well (he is from there, after all), and I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the “tube” and the piers, as well as the ironic and funny descriptions of London traffic. Carey gave Mike a dry voice, one that was at its best when showing us the world in which he lives and its absurdity a la Bill Bryson.
What Killed it for Me:
Unfortunately, the interesting magical system and fun descriptions of modern-day UK couldn’t save this narrative from some pretty pervasive sexism and racism, as well as an often agonizingly boring textbook-style narrative. Let’s tackle these individually:
- The sexism. Our narrator Mike is surrounded by women. His “non romantic magical soulmate,” Sam, is a (witch? Wizard? Sorceress?) of a super high strength, to the point where he often relies on her for raw power. His girlfriend Amy, who is wheelchair bound, doesn’t let her disability stop her, and is a very powerful magic user in her own right with a wicked tongue and strong sense of self. Amy’s magical partner Clara has nuanced magic that no one else can do, and two out of three of the “wizarding governing body” are women. So where did Carey go wrong? He sexualized basically all of them. Constantly. I get that we are in the head of a 20-something year old man, but not every woman’s curves need to be commented on, not every relationship needs to have a hint of sexual banter. Carey tries explaining the sexual tension between Sam and Mike (funnily enough, my SO and I are “Sam and Mike”, and I still hated these two) as a natural reaction to them being in each other’s heads, but then he references how Amy would feel about it while also sexualizing Amy. Shit, even Clara gets some of this, as well as the head Healer at central and both of the women who help govern UK wizards, Nadia and Anne.
An example of Mike’s internal dialogue:
“Sam has short hair and is slim in the face as well as the body, with modest curves and very nice legs, especially when she hasn’t put her trousers on, like now. Red silk underwear, in case you were wondering.”
No Mike, I was not wondering. This goes on for the entirety of Ordinary Miracles, and it is a miracle I finished the book.
- The racism. Again, on its face Ordinary Miracles seems like a poster book for diversity: Sam is from Hong Kong, Amy is from Thailand I believe, Clara is from St. Lucia, and most of the supporting characters are also from other underrepresented demographics. This would all be well and good… if Carey had let it just stand. Instead, Sam speaks in the most atrociously broken English I have ever had to read on paper (One memorable quote: “Hard you be Amy girlfriend unless you very ugly ladyboy”) and is constantly sexualized based on her Asian heritage, Clara is often described as “chocolate” colored, and the rest of the characters are often glaringly described based on their ethnic features or how hard it is to pronounce their names. Even the American gets the same treatment (I know “American” isn’t a race, there just isn’t a better term), with the head of Mike’s university, Professor Wicks, speaking as though she is a cowboy on crack cocaine. (Memorable quote here: “People ain’t happy. We gotta become acclimated to being under suspicion. What we do ain’t exactly secret, and most folk don’t recognise us with a flashlight and a mugshot, but who we are is gonna leak out.”) What is the point of wonderfully representative diversity if you ruin it with patently false stereotypes and poor execution?
- Lastly, the narration. Look, I can appreciate an unreliable narrator, even one who is unlikable. What I can’t deal with is whole swaths of text that tells the reader the “science” behind the magic and nuts and bolts in such a way that it feels like your college professor talking about thermodynamics when you are an English major (true story, that). Mike goes into lengthy monologues about the magical world that are directed either at the reader in his head, or talking out loud to someone like his dad. It is a technique often used in science fiction and more in depth fantasy, but here it failed spectacularly. Carey managed to make a fun and modern magical system into something boring to learn about.
I understand the publishing industry is a rough, competitive place where authors go to die. I also love how freely available self–publishing is, and didn’t know about Matador’s marketing strategy (helping self-published authors get the word out) until reading Ordinary Miracles. But sometimes, a book needs an editor. Here, Martyn Carey’s debut novel needs an editor, preferably someone female and POC. The premise is solid, the worldbuild was intriguing, and all of it was ruined by overly sexualized women and horribly racist stereotypes. Do I think that Carey did this on purpose? Not at all; I think any writer who tries to add that much female and POC diversity has good intentions. He also clearly put a lot of work into building a believable magic system, complete with governing bodies and international treaties. But someone needs to sit down with this book and a red pen, even if it is just a friend who wants this book to succeed with a wider audience.
If you want to give Ordinary Miracles a try, you can find it here as a paperback and here for ebook, out as of last month. I genuinely think British readers will enjoy the narrator’s wry and self-deprecating tone, replete with British slang and wonderful descriptions of the UK from urban sprawl to countryside. I also think it is worth giving a read for the magical system, if you can separate the unfortunate characterizations. For me, however, it is two waves, generously given for the amount of effort put into producing this book.