Review: Ilona Andrews’s “Magic Triumphs”

by Miles Raymer


If you’re unfamiliar with the Kate Daniels series, please stop reading this immediately and heed the words of Ilona Andrews: “If you’ve never read us before, and this is your first Kate book, thank you for buying it, but please put it down and find a copy of Magic Bites” (Acknowledgements). This directive isn’t just a good idea, but an absolute necessity if you want to experience the full breadth of what this amazing series has to offer. Simply put, Magic Triumphs is the perfect conclusion to the best fantasy series I’ve ever read (yes, that includes The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the still unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire).

Reflecting on this superb final installment and the nine books that precede it, it’s clear to me that the core themes of this series are lifted straight from the pages of humanity’s best works of literature. I say this not to suggest that Andrews’s work somehow deserves to be categorized as high art; on the contrary, these books are proudly genre fiction, through and through. The prose is shockingly simple, but never descends into simple-mindedness. Andrews’s hallmark wit obtains from a lowbrow but highly perceptive social commentary that anyone can relate to but few can wield with the kind of endearing precision that elicits belly laughs, satisfying smirks, and I’ve-totally-been-there eyebrow raises. All of this goes to say that the series has managed something miraculous, which is to completely own and celebrate its prosaic fundamentals while reaching for the stars with its emotional and psychological impact.

As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that entertaining the reader is merely Andrews’s proximate goal, whereas the ultimate goal is to educate. There are three main lessons I took away from the experience, ones that I’ve encountered elsewhere but never quite with the creativity and zany flavor that Illona Andrews brings to the battlefield of ideas. The first of these lessons is found in Kate’s transition from a stark individualist to an embedded community member. When we met Kate way back in the first book, she was a depressed loner, a mysterious heroine who concealed her immense magical power for fear that anyone she cared about might be killed or used against her by someone seeking to extinguish or harness her limitless potential. In one of the quiet moments scattered throughout Magic Triumphs, Kate takes a moment to reflect on her past self:

No ties, no roots, no attachment to friends or possessions. Back then I could’ve picked up at a moment’s notice and vanished, and nobody would’ve worried or cared. I was a no-name merc, minding my own business…Nobody cared if I made it home. Nobody waited up, nobody treated my wounds, nobody made me a cup of coffee and asked me about my day. When I thought about it now, my memories of that time seemed gray, as if all the color had been leeched out of them. (159-60)

Kate acknowledges the untethered, free-wheeling appeal of her former life, but has learned that it wasn’t what she truly wanted for herself. She basks in the realization that, finally, she has found her rightful place in the world:

When I thought of my house now, it was filled with warmth and light. It always smelled of seared meat or a fresh pie or fresh coffee. It was my little piece of the world, welcoming and comfortable…A place where I belonged. (160)

Utterly transformed and yet still herself, the Kate who must deal with the inevitable demonic shenanigans in Magic Triumphs has become the star around which a loving and motley solar system of weirdos orbit. Her hard-won reward for all her years of trying to do the right thing is a happy home and a network of logical family members who live close by and take care of each other:

We weren’t just one thing. We were many: shapeshifters, necromancers, witches, mages, mercenaries…We came in all shapes and sizes, in every age, in every human color, in every variation of magic, and from that we drew our strength. We were surprising and unexpected, and we were united. (299)

The reason Kate is able to win so many devoted friends has something to do with her impressive magical abilities and fighting skills, but a lot more to do with her capacity for perspective-taking and forgiveness. This is the second lesson I took away from this series: Going the extra mile to understand other people is always the best form of conflict resolution. Throughout each phase of her personal journey, Kate killed countless enemies, but only when she felt she had no other choice. Whenever she could make peace with someone, she did, winning them over with a combination of empathy, grit, and a palpable exhaustion with the insidious human instincts toward domination and power over others. Kate is a naturally-compersive person who just wants everyone to get along:

I kill to protect myself and others. I don’t begin violence, I respond to it…When I see people prospering and enjoying their lives, it makes me happy…When people prosper, the world is safer…If you conquer everyone, life will be boring and empty of all meaning. (280)

One of the best tropes that has held throughout the series is Kate’s determination to always have a conversation before resorting to violence––even with her most aggressive and depraved adversaries. She often fails to persuade her foes that violence won’t solve their problems, but always comes away with an accurate model of her opponent’s point of view, and can therefore leap into battle assured that resistance is necessary. And when she succeeds in coaxing someone away from a destructive path, she always makes a friend for life. In Magic Triumphs, this dynamic reaches a new peak as Kate pulls off one final conversion of a former enemy who at one time seemed utterly irredeemable. This defensive weapon proves every bit as potent as the blood-edged sword Kate uses to carve her way to victory.

The third lesson I took away from this series concerns the difficult balance between personal desires and community obligations. Kate and Curran––her werelion former Beast Lord turned hunky husband––are beings of extraordinary quality, capable of defending their community in ways no one else can. They are perpetually trapped by the tension between their desire for an uncomplicated and deeply satisfying form of domestic bliss and the ever-changing needs of their logical family, which regularly comes under threat from all manner of mythological mischief-makers and genocidal villains. Their friends are far from helpless, but Kate and Curran are so uniquely gifted that they alone must often lead the charge when the worst baddies come calling.

Within the books, this problem takes dramatic and violent shape, which is entertaining and exhilarating. But underneath the swift decapitations and gut-splattering disembowelments, there is a common truth to which we all can relate: Everyone has something special they bring to the table of life, something they do just a bit better or much better than those in their immediate social network, and it can be frustrating when we have to choose between our personal desire to live a peaceful, quiet life and our need to step up to the plate and continually perform so that the people we care about can go on living and flourishing. Although being depended on by one’s community can feel like an unfair burden at times, most people will still choose such a life over one where no one cares about them or calls on them for anything––the kind of life Kate led before becoming entangled in the social bonds that render her newly vulnerable but ultimately more powerful. Taking care of those we love can be a real pain in the ass, but it’s a good problem to have and ought to inspire far more gratitude than resentment:

Family, blood or found, was our salvation. It was the net that caught us and gently lifted us up out of the raging waters. (326)

Is this lesson a cliché? In every sense of the word. Are all of these lessons clichés? You bet. But they are clichés in desperate need of a revival. As we tumble through the 21st century, tired, scared, overwhelmed by the scramble for stability or the anxiety of trying to keep it, humans need to return more often to the humanistic wellsprings that have made us strong as a species and will continue to do so: perseverance, loyalty, connection, compassion. The Kate Daniels series is a unique and precious piece of art, one that makes us laugh, cry, gasp and groan, all while reminding us that the most important things in life are the bonds we form with others, and the better selves that are born from those bonds. Because if a better world is possible, those better selves are the only ones who can build it––together.

Rating: 10/10