'The Middling Affliction' by Alex Shvartsman, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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'The Middling Affliction' by Alex Shvartsman, Review

Alexander Wallace enters the upcoming Conradverse.
George R. R. Martin argued in his introduction to the anthology Down These Strange Streets: Tales of Urban Fantasy that the urban fantasy genre is a melding of two different literary traditions: hard-boiled detective stories and horror stories. Alex Shvartsman swaps outright horror with something more whimsical in his forthcoming novel The Middling Affliction, set to be the first in what the author calls the Conradverse. The book will be released to the public on May 31st, 2022.

The series takes its name from the narrator, Conrad Brent. He is, in some ways, your typical urban fantasy protagonist: an investigator with a sharp wit and secrets of his own. One of those secrets (which is revealed in promotional material) is the fact that he has no innate magic; he is a middling, who can channel magic using special objects but cannot conjure it ex nihilo. This is something he keeps secret from his comrades in the Watch, the magically-empowered guardians of New York, who defend the city from supernatural threats (the astute reader will note a similarity to N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became).

Conrad is a thoroughly enjoyable narrator, with a sense of humor that prevents the story from ever becoming too morose. However, he is also a man quite capable of pathos and of sympathy; there’s a particular scene with a female character in which he acts with far more tact than I’d expect from a protagonist of this sort. It is that subtle character work that makes Conrad stand out among many similar narrators, and makes the book as a whole stand out by proxy.

The Middling Affliction uses a standard urban fantasy cosmology wherein magic is known to relatively little of the population. Shvartsman uses this to bring the reader to a number of places, relatively familiar or otherwise. He takes you out of New York via a method I never would have expected, and sets important scenes in a certain European locale that makes perfect sense for this type of story.

He also uses this to enliven the world in ways that feel new and refreshing. There’s a fun little case in the beginning without too much relation to the broader plot (reminiscent of the explosive scenes that begin many James Bond movies) that involves an obvious expy of Donald Trump, druids, and a meditation on development and gentrification that has clever reverberations with the current state of New York City.

Shvartsman’s magic is likewise well-done, using a standard form of such powers for the genre in ways that are vividly realized and originally cast. There are far more to middlings than Shvartsman initially lets on, and the consequences of this are the book’s greatest strengths.

The Middling Affliction is a strong entry in the urban fantasy genre, one that I greatly enjoyed the whole way through. It is perfect for anyone looking for more of that type of book.

[The author was provided an advanced review copy of this book]

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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