Was this book absolutely perfect? No, but these days it’s really hard to achieve such a status. Was this book everything I’ve ever dreamed of a YA fantasy being? I mean, it’s pretty damn close.
I didn’t know what I was expecting when I started this book. I didn’t expect to become attached the way I have. I didn’t expect it to be full of so many plot twists that I usually tend to see coming but this time I didn’t. But when I don’t expect all of those things I get to be pleasantly surprised and ultimately impressed. I don’t know how many books Lisa Maxwell has written prior to The Last Magician but I can say that I’m unbelievably impressed and she’s a name I’d like to investigate more.
I think the biggest selling point for anyone who wants to read this book is that it’s like if Six of Crows and Passenger had a baby and that baby was The Last Magician. This book has all the elements of building a crew and pulling off a near impossible heist like that of Six of Crows and deals with the high stakes of time travel like that of Passenger. If you like either of those books, even just a little bit, then you’re most likely going to enjoy The Last Magician. But I think that while these two elements of the story are things that absolutely should not go together, because time travel is stressful enough without trying to accomplish a heist, Maxwell made it work. She ensured that her protagonist, Esta, was prepared for not just the ability to travel to the early 1900s and be confident in her affinity, but she made sure that Esta was prepared for anything and anyone she’d face in the past and made sure she was educated in history and educated in the skills it would take to make the crew she was trying to infiltrate. Nothing Esta did felt like it was convenient for her, because she did face a lot of troubles here and there, and for anything she got herself in to she was able to get herself out of due to her training. It was nice to have a smart and prepared protagonist, rather than the naive, ignorant “chosen one” type that could apparently pick up everything as the story moved along. I liked her intelligence, how prepared she was, and how she was always able to think on her feet. And that’s what allowed her to get on the heist crew and accomplish what she’d been sent to the past to do. It was also interesting for the reader and Esta to have the knowledge of how the heist turned out in history and watch the original players try to figure out how to go about things, to see who had what motive, all while Esta was simultaneously trying to help pull it off yet change the outcome. It definitely raised the stakes and made it incredibly exciting to read.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the narrative initially, but again as I got past the first 100 or so pages, things really started to click with me and I not just appreciated the story but the narrative as well. Obviously, being used to reading a lot of YA you usually get a couple first person POVs of the key players or you get a single first person/third person narrative, so naturally I expected to see that here. But Maxwell not only went for the third person narrative route but she also gave the third person POV to various characters in order to get a full, well rounded story. I’d consider myself a fan of this style, but only if it’s done incredibly well and we don’t waste pages and pages on a person who doesn’t matter, and because Maxwell didn’t do that I can confidently say that she did this narrative style a lot of justice. She mostly focused on Esta, Harte, and Dolph as her mains, but there were occasions where she’d focus on other crew members like Viola and Jiaynu to gauge their thoughts on what was happening and sometimes focus on the Order’s side of things with Jack, who represents the antagonist’s POV here. And whenever she did veer off into the other characters, Maxwell didn’t waste a lot of time on those chapters, keeping them no more than 4 or 5 pages each, in order to give a little taste beyond the world of Esta and Harte but allowing the reader to really see what’s going on all around. That’s the kind of third person narrative I like and though it took a while for me, personally, to get used to it, I found that once I got used to it everything was smooth sailing.
What’s really interesting about the narrative as well, I found, was that there was a sense of unreliableness to it but not in the usual sense. Typically you find a narrator to be unreliable because as the reader, you learn that you can’t trust what they say or you have an inkling that they’re purposely omitting parts of the story to you to save face, but that’s not the kind of unreliableness I found here. I believe the narration to be unreliable not because we, the reader, can’t trust the character but because the characters can’t trust each other and it’s almost like Maxwell is forcing you into a corner trying to decide who’s side you want to be on and who, ultimately, will win and do the right thing in the end. We constantly see how Harte and Esta are deceiving each other, and while we know each other’s plans we also know that they don’t know what the other truly plans to do, and it keeps you guessing of how things will unfold. Will Esta be able to accomplish deceiving both Harte and Dolph and get back to her own time? Will Harte betray the team just like history says he will? Or will Dolph be the one who finally wins? There’s always this sense of knowing but not knowing, and that’s why I found the narrative to be a bit unreliable but also very enticing and exciting.
The one thing I didn’t quite expect to see in this story was a romance element, since I couldn’t see Esta starting something with Dolph (who, in the beginning, was who I thought she was supposed to stop) and from my first meeting with Harte, everything about him was a surprise. I didn’t think I wanted to see a romance develop at all, but the more time he and Esta spent together, the more time they each thought about one another, the more angst developed between them and you couldn’t help but feel the pull between them. You don’t start off wanting to see them fall for one another but you get to a point where you need them to fall for one another. And it works because Maxwell didn’t put it at the forefront of the story, and definitely didn’t allude to it in the synopsis like most YA fantasies do, and because you’re not thinking about it or expecting it you develop the want and need to see it. It’s so smart and clever and I hope to god she did it on purpose because it was an outstanding way to make me crave romance.
After reading a few YA fantasies where the magic system was either too simple or so lazily explained that I couldn’t see the point, I was a bit wary of getting into another story that focused on magic and more or less braced myself for this magic system’s explanation. And again I was surprised, which seems to be a common theme here. Once meeting Esta, I really thought all Maegus could time travel or they all had the same powers and kept waiting to see how her magic would be explained but I found that what makes this system so unique is that every Maegus has a different affinity that suits their person and only they know how to unlock. Of course, we get into more historical explanations throughout the book when talking about the Order and the Brink, and how all of those relationships work, but to me it was refreshing to see how many powers and affinities there could be and not one was identical. I feel like everything about this book impressed me and was done in a way that I didn’t expect but needed nonetheless.
Again, my only complaint was that the first part of this book was a bit slow for my taste and I could feel myself wanting to give up, thinking that it was going to be a chore to get through the whole 500 pages. But once I got past that first part, once things starting moving and the story’s factors all started clicking, I couldn’t put it down. And now that I know how it ends and how insanely twisty the endings is, I urge everyone to stick it out and give the book a chance.
Out of all the YA fantasies I come across, I can’t say that The Last Magician is a popular one or a frequent one, but I feel like it needs to be. It has the excitement of a heist plot like Six of Crows, the stress and angst found in Passenger, and is all woven together to make a great sci-fi fantasy story that gets more exciting with each passing page. If NA fiction was actually respected and recognized, this would be the absolute perfect bridge between the YA and Adult world and Maxwell created such a balance that I know I’m craving to see in other books.
Stop the Magician. Steal the book. Save the future.
In modern-day New York, magic is all but extinct. The remaining few who have an affinity for magic—the Mageus—live in the shadows, hiding who they are. Any Mageus who enters Manhattan becomes trapped by the Brink, a dark energy barrier that confines them to the island. Crossing it means losing their power—and often their lives.
Esta is a talented thief, and she’s been raised to steal magical artifacts from the sinister Order that created the Brink. With her innate ability to manipulate time, Esta can pilfer from the past, collecting these artifacts before the Order even realizes she’s there. And all of Esta’s training has been for one final job: traveling back to 1902 to steal an ancient book containing the secrets of the Order—and the Brink—before the Magician can destroy it and doom the Mageus to a hopeless future.
But Old New York is a dangerous world ruled by ruthless gangs and secret societies, a world where the very air crackles with magic. Nothing is as it seems, including the Magician himself. And for Esta to save her future, she may have to betray everyone in the past.