July 24, 2008


Yesterday’s Magic. By Pamela F. Service. Random House. $16.99.

Some Helpful Tips for a Better World and a Happier Life. By Rebecca Doughty. Schwartz & Wade. $9.99.

      If only there were magic that really worked, the world would be a much better place. That is, if only the right people controlled the magic. This is a problem for all books in which magic is a major force, dating back at least to the legends of King Arthur – which Pamela Service has been remaking and reconsidering for more than 20 years. Her first two tales of post-nuclear-holocaust Britain – in which a bold attempt is made to return the nation to rule by King Arthur, whose reappearance in a time of great need has long been predicted – were Winter of Magic’s Return (1985) and Tomorrow’s Magic (1987). Last year’s reissue of those stories under the Tomorrow’s Magic title paved the way for Service’s further exploration of the subject in Yesterday’s Magic. The idea of a nuclear holocaust ushering in an age of mutants, extinctions and a revival of magic – of both the good type and the ill – was already rather well-worn by the mid-1980s, so Service takes Yesterday’s Magic in a somewhat different (if not wholly new) direction. She pulls the focus away from the grand doings of King Arthur, who is being married to Queen Margaret of Scotland while trying to reunite England, and makes human characters the main focus of the new novel. One of those is Heather McKenna, although she may not be strictly human, since she has magical powers of her own, and they are growing steadily. She is kidnapped by Arthur’s old nemesis, Morgan LeFay, who wants Heather as a pawn in her centuries-old bid for power (here tangled up with the Hindu goddess of death). With Arthur otherwise occupied, it falls to Heather’s friend, Welly, to mount a rescue – with the help of none other than Merlin, supplier of the necessary gravitas as well as magical firepower. Service keeps humor handy – a welcome stylistic element. For example, a troll named Troll talks this way: “Trolls not like dragons. Dragons big and cranky and eat small folk. …Troll brave, do duty. Horses big hairy cowards.” And Service tries hard – she really does – to unite the once and future magic with elements that fit the real world as readers know it, as in the discovery of “a big underground bunker. A city almost. Apparently some government and military big shots built this hideout in the mountains in case war broke out. But I don’t think most of them got to use it. They were killed right out, or maybe from the radiation or the plagues.” Still, the book does not quite work, as the humorous elements and serious ones mix uneasily. Humor wins out most of the time (“Even with magic, we can’t save the world on empty stomachs”), making the underlying seriousness seem a bit trivialized. Still, fans of Service, who is a very fine writer, will find much to enjoy here.

      Back in the everyday world, wouldn’t it be nice to posses some little bits of magic to make life flow more easily? Rebecca Doughty offers them in Some Helpful Tips for a Better World and a Happier Life. Perhaps these prescriptions aren’t magical in a sense that King Arthur and Merlin would understand, but they certainly can produce magical effects – especially when coupled with Doughty’s illustrations, which provoke some quite-magical laughter. “Begin each day by making funny faces in the mirror” is a good place to start; “experiment with your hairdo” shows a girl with a cat draped over her head; “invent occasions for celebrations” focuses on “International Bunny Appreciation Day”; and so on. A thin, gift-type hardcover with pleasant messages about enjoying the little things in life, Doughty’s book recommends nothing more magical than that readers observe and enjoy what they find around them, from beaches to mud puddles. But then, that’s magic enough for a less-stressed life, isn’t it?

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