NOTE: Review copy supplied by the author.
Title: Magic or Die
Author: J.P. Jackson
Publisher: NineStar Press
Genre: Dark Urban Fantasy / MM Romance
Length: 87,300 words
James Martin is a teacher, a powerful Psychic, and an alcoholic. He used to work for the Center for Magical Research and Development, a facility that houses people who can’t control their supernatural abilities, but left after one of his students was killed, turning to vodka to soothe his emotional pain. The problem is he still has one year left on his contract.
When James returns to the CMRD to fulfill the rest of his contract, he finds himself confronting the demons of his past and attempting to protect his new class from a possible death sentence, because if they don’t pass their final exams, they’ll be euthanized.
James also discovers that his class isn’t bringing in enough sponsors, the agencies and world governments who supply grants and ultimately purchase graduates of the CMRD, and that means no profit for the facility. James and his students face impossible odds—measure up to the facility’s unreachable standards or escape.
I wanted to start here by saying that the author, J.P. Jackson, has an excellent eye for detail when it comes to worldbuilding. That’s something that really shines, especially in terms of the magic system. That’s really important too because magic without a set of rules in place doesn’t really work in books aimed at older readers, at least in my opinion. Here, he’s set up several classes of ability that work well alongside each other. Sure, the different styles are fairly common fantasy elements – even the super interesting concept of sanguimancy has been used before – but there’s a definite original edge to it. It honestly feels like J.P. went to great lengths to ensure that the way the different classes work and interact with their user and the environment feels natural. Even the descriptions of how magic feels to use works wonderfully. That really helps the story overall because the use of magic is so intertwined with the different elements of the tale.
In terms of characters, they’re an interesting bunch to get to grips with. Our key protagonist, James, is very curmudgeonly in nature when we meet him. I enjoyed that, and it helped provide a contrast with his more caring side ss he worked with the students to help them control their powers. Having been addicted to alcohol and cigarettes since a tragic event in his backstory has left him low too. What I found interesting with it is that he describes himself with phrases like ‘my middle had a jiggle’, which gives a clear indication that he views himself as at the very least being more out of shape than he used to be. At the same time though, his love interest Isaiah describes him as having a bodybuilder physique. This felt like a case of internal perception vs. external perception. I enjoyed that because, let’s be honest, many of us will have been in the same position at some point. I know I have, at least. I was happy to see a hero that wasn’t in the best shape of their life too, as it made James feel more like a relatable, normal teacher, even in spite of the setting. Throw in that he openly hurts and it gives you plenty to get behind in terms of wanting him to better his position.
While all the magical abilities were portrayed well, it was the demonic ones that felt the best to me. If you’ve read J.P.’s debut novel Daimonion, that won’t be a surprise, as the author has a clear fondness for this side of the arcane. If anything though, I’d say that it’s perhaps a little tighter in Magic or Die. From a Yuki-onna – who doesn’t love the classic snow yokai? – to some wonderful imagery involving a demon tail when Isiah is let out, it’s all very striking. It also opened up a chance for an excellent side character named Tonka to give a very well written talk about coexistence with demons.
Ghosts get a look-in too, with some interesting concepts about how they work. For example, the way they get twisted if they died hanging on to anger added a little depth to James’ deceased ex-partner Cody, which in turn also added to James’ arc. The attempt to exorcise Cody was a real stand-out scene too. His slow decay throughout was also really well done and reminded me of American Werewolf In London. There’s also a very Exorcist moment where veins spell out the word ‘help me’ in one of the characters. That made me smile. Oh, and Annabelle’s ‘I see you’ is always gloriously creepy.
In terms of the general story, the heroes are given a lot of obstacles to overcome. From James’ initial state and feelings about the situation to the ever-shrinking boundary of how long they have to learn control, there’s plenty to cheer them on through. It all builds up to an action-packed final conflict and a finale that ends the arc and sets up the next. That the students are all technically adults is also good to see. After all, adults learn too, and that’s something I haven’t seen portrayed too often.
If anything, the romance may be the biggest stumbling block for some readers. Despite the characters all being adults, there is still a sense of boundaries between students and teachers. In fact, James brings this up himself multiple times. He knows that there’s a sense of any potential romance between himself and Isaiah being wrong, at least until they’re no long student and teacher, and he makes that clear. But, he goes for it anyway. From a personal standpoint, all the characters being adult helped here. It also isn’t written in a way that feels wrong if that makes sense. I’m sure that some readers like the trope anyway – it’s certainly a popular one – but if this sort of relationship shift is an issue for you, be aware that it’s there, but go in with an open mind, because they do feel like they’ll be good for each other. The relationship feels a little insta-love too, which also seems to be a story element that people either love or hate. I felt that the demonic interaction involved perhaps hastened things in this case, which fits within the story universe. While quickly forming relationships are not my preference, I felt that it was fine here.
So, where does that all leave Magic or Die? Well, I’d say that it’s an enjoyable Dark Urban Fantasy with horror elements. The romantic side of the story may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but even if it goes against your preferences, the book still has a lot more to offer. The magical elements are superb, and the characters are a sympathetic bunch. So, I give it a solid 4 out of 5.