Karen O’Neil has already saved the world once. So when an old friend sends her a mysterious package from Havana at the start of W. L. Goodwater’s Revolution, she is reluctant to get involved in yet another magical mystery. But this time, a little girl has gone missing, and the arcane is unmistakably involved. And in her capacity as head researcher on theoretical magic for the Office of Magical Research and Deployment, she has a vested interest in new magical technologies unknown to the United States government. What she finds is a cauldron of incipient revolution, corrupt men with impossible dreams and few trustworthy colleagues, if any. And in the process, she may just have to save the world for a second time.
It would be easy, perhaps, to draw an analogy between Goodwater’s magically infused Cold War and other arcanely altered histories. Historical fiction with a dash of magicians is increasingly common, as evidenced by books authored by such luminaries as Susanna Clarke, China Mieville and Guy Gavriel Kay. Revolution falls squarely in this domain, but unlike the work of those writers, it is defined almost wholly by its taut, compelling plot, rather than by stylistic elements like Clarke’s flowery, Austenesque prose. Goodwater’s writing is direct and efficient, ideally suited to the thrillers he crafts, and adroitly gets out of its own way to allow the story itself to shine through.
Karen O’Neil’s travails in Cuba are great fun (for the reader, emphatically not for Ms. O’Neil), bringing to mind an Indiana Jones adventure with a little more moral ambiguity, a lot more incantations and much stronger female characters. Without exception, the women are smart, capable and independent, while the men tend towards greedy, corrupt or inept, which is a more than welcome change from the genre’s status quo. There are conspiracies, secret societies, guerrilla rebels, mob bosses, nefarious businessmen, Soviet spies, magic artifacts and disembodied voices galore. Goodwater’s ventures into Spanish names (a witch predictably named La Bruja) and dialogue (consisting mostly of single words or simple phrases before veering back into English) leave some verisimilitude behind, but this is a quibble, and does not distract from the book’s overall narrative drive. The cliffhanger ending ensures there will be further chapters in Karen O’Neil’s reluctant quest to save the world from its own worst impulses.