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Joe Brooks, a boy who likes models and Monster Machine magazine, gets up in the middle of the night and finds that his bathroom door opens into a muddy plain stretching to the horizon all around. Suddenly Joe is in a strange, island world where the sun never shines, the war never ends, and the lost children who regularly appear out of nowhere never seem to get home again. A world torn apart between two sister queens who both blame each other for the death of a third sister. A world where trenches, barbed wire, and automated war-engines surround a walled city crumbling into ruins, where bureaucratic paralysis and water damage are together eroding the foundations of society, and where the secret police uses cruel interrogation techniques to wring the guilty secrets out of children, using them as leverage to keep the kids in line.
Before he can get home to his models and his magazines, Joe must find his sister Hannah. Why? Because he’s dreamt that he did her wrong, and she got sick, and someone carried her away to this awful place, and it’s all his fault. In search of his sister, Joe must crawl across acres of mud, wriggle through fetid sewers, hunker in the belly of rusty old trucks, rub shoulders with some frankly sickening people (like the thief who stows pork chops in his socks), and elude machines designed to destroy people in a gruesome variety of ways. He couldn’t survive it without the help of a young fetcher named Katherine, who wants to prove that her brother Tom hasn’t turned traitor; and of a guide named Spider, who doesn’t let blindness get in the way of his keen navigational skills.
The dirt is obvious, but it’s not clear exactly why the word “magic” is in the title. What magic exists in this land of mud and machine is vague and notional only. There’s something magical about the way Joe arrives there, and in the route he must eventually take to get home—if he makes it that far. There’s something otherworldly about the Heathermen’s ingenious designs, the Skulkers’ shrewd resistance tactics, Spider’s super-keen senses, and the hint of a dragon beyond the mountains to the north. There are even unexplainable feats of engineering, such as an invisible bridge. It seems possible that this might be a magical world, and its rightful rulers women of supernatural power, if only the veneer of soot, rust, grime, and technology could be scraped off.
Joe commits himself so completely to finding his sister that he willingly gives himself up to the bad guys, particularly the villainous Ambassador Orlemann. He learns a lot about the history and politics of the world he has joined, and we learn it with him. He grows quickly from a bewildered, lost child to an effective spy and a courageous hero: enduring danger and torture as well as flattery and temptation; delivering thousands of children from an awful fate; and unraveling a fiendish plot to seize absolute power. But to find his way back to Hannah, he will have to face a harsh truth. And, unfortunately, the journey home will make him forget all his adventures.
Other than a handful of stylistic goofs (such as saying twice in a row that Joe looked up, or using the phrase “gloomy effect” where “gloom” would do), this last twist (Joe’s forgetfulness) is the only blemish in an otherwise terrific piece of fantasy world-building. It’s an exciting story, clothed in unusually drab yet vividly interesting atmospherics. Without doubt, Carol Hughes is a talent to watch. Other books by this British-American author include Toots and the Upside-Down House and Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves.