In Matthew Hentrich's novel Damned City, the magic has gone - literally.
The self-published debut novel from the Quad Cities author takes place in a world in which everybody has magical skills - but its hook is that the residents of Spectra have been abruptly robbed of those abilities. There are additional complications for the city: Its highest elected official has been found dead, and it is enveloped in a spell that makes time pass much more slowly than in the rest of the world - making daylight span days. Spectra's residents are certain that an attack on the city is imminent, and they need to figure out how to defend themselves with their magic gone.
The premise, Hentrich said in a recent phone interview, was a reversal of the typical fantasy what-if of characters having magic. "The one twist I thought I could put on the concept was to go the opposite direction and say, 'What if you had people who had magic, and now it's been removed from them?'"
That narrative starting point is plenty clever, and Hentrich is also strong in his pacing, in his management of story rhythm with multiple main characters, and especially in the way he melds disparate elements into a compelling hybrid. His world shares plenty with ours (from coffee and booze to representative government) while still being foreign. (In one nice oddball touch, a city with no need for mechanical transportation finds itself using bears for travel when magic disappears.) The plot brings together fantasy and mystery, and Hentrich trusts readers enough to leave out expository background that would bog down his quick-moving story; everything is familiar enough to grease the path.
The choice to not fill in the blanks, he said, was both an artistic choice and a way to keep the book lean: "From the perspective of the characters, it doesn't make sense to give a lengthy explanation of why they do the things that they always do." World-building, he acknowledged, "is useful to the reader. ... It just would have added an awful lot of length to the book," which still ended up at 480 pages.
So he chose to err on the side of omission. "I struggled more with pacing than I thought I would," he said. "It's hard to intuitively sense whether or not your story is moving fast enough for the reader ... . What was difficult ... was that nagging sensation that maybe I'm moving too fast, and I'm not paying enough attention to the reader experience."
The book was written, Hentrich said, nearly entirely on his lunch hours, and it has unsurprising shortcomings for a new novelist working under that constraint and the self-doubt about pacing. The three main characters - all playing a role solving the mystery/problem - are disappointingly stock and sketchy: an alcoholic cop, a plucky female scientist, and an escaped criminal trying to reunite with his family. (That's really all you need to know about any of them.) Details are largely provided to propel the plot - a storytelling style that feels too economical.
And close calls come down to last-gasp efforts at survival - attempts at suspense that rarely work. When the cop is trapped in a sinking boat and thinks a box of matches will save him, he inevitably fails ... until he's down to his final match.
Yet Hentrich's book works, in large part because of the casual yet intricate way he crafts the world, and also because of how he's thought through the implications of his ideas. Hentrich said he's most proud of a section in the middle of the book describing a particular spell - essentially one that makes cognitive dissonance a powerful weapon.
"I really wanted to have this ... magic spell that someone might have that would make you see things from another person's perspective," he explained. "Not just mental manipulation ... [but] a spell where you actually see things from their perspective. You have your own perspective, but you also have theirs. If you disagree with them, having their perspective shoved into your brain would be very difficult and might even drive you crazy."
The spell, he said, originated "probably from daily experience," particularly his blog writing of political commentary; he equates persuasive writing with his imagined magic: "That's almost what you're doing when you're making an argument ... . You're trying to get a perspective into their brain - not just an argument, but all the things that lead to that argument. ... It can be very difficult or impossible, and if you do manage to force your perspective into someone else's mind, it can be very hard for them."
Another inspired idea is that the scientist is charged with investigating (and eventually building) the mechanical tools of a long-dead race of nonmagical people as a way to defend Spectra - although such inquiries are illegal. (She and her team are handicapped by the fact that they have no idea about the function of anything they're building.)
Damned City, Hentrich admits, started with a simple goal of "seeing something with my name on it in print." He said he was approaching his 30s, and "if I was going to do anything creatively, I had to do it then, or I probably wasn't going to do it all."
He attended a writers' conference and began working on the novel over his lunch breaks at his job as a systems administrator. (He has two children and a full-time-student wife who attends classes out-of-town, making writing at home difficult.)
And aside from the (considerable) investment of time and energy, the process and costs of self-publishing these days meant there was no reason not to publish the book once it was finished.
"It was virtually free," Hentrich said. "It's just the best time in history to do it. The process is so seamless and so painless."
He said he paid less than $100 for artwork for the book, and there was no cost to publish it via Amazon.com's CreateSpace division. Paperbacks are published on-demand - meaning that authors no longer need to buy 1,000 copies of their work that will sit in a garage. "There's very little excuse not to try it," he said.
Physical books cost $13, while the Kindle version costs $2.99 - and the book is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. "I tried to take every opportunity I could to screw myself out of money," he said, laughing. "I'd much rather have 1,000 people read it and make no money off it than to make 100 bucks and have 10 people read it."
But the downside to self-publishing is the difficulty in finding and building an audience, and Hentrich concedes he's nowhere near 1,000 readers four months after the book was first made available.
"Hoping someone's going to stumble across your book and think it's great is really just throwing a rock in a pond," he said. "The flip side of that ease of publishing is that the market is swamped. ...
"I've been extremely pleased with the process of self-publishing. ... I've been fairly pleased with the handful of people who have gotten it and read it ... ."
Ultimately, he said, writing and marketing the novel were experiments, and he might choose a different path for his next work - which concerns a female protagonist participating in underground magic competitions not unlike sporting events. As with Damned City, the core concept has fascinating facets - in this case, the idea of crowd funding transplanted to the magic competitions, with the audience's investment of energy crucial to success.
He hopes to finish writing the book in a year, and he's also considering stepping up into traditional publishing - both for what an editor might offer and the possibility of marketing assistance. "One thing that Damned City lacked was an editor - the person who knows what sells and what sounds good," he said.