The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker

This is my next review of a nominee for the 2019 Short Story Locus Award. This story was also nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Short Story awards (another trifecta story).

Published: January, 2018 in Lightspeed Magazine, and as a podcast at PodCastle in May, 2019 (both are still available online for free at the links provided)

Genre: fantasy short story

Setting: a medieval technology city

Summary: Short version: A boy learns that doing real magic as a Court Magician requires sacrifice

Long version: Our narrator takes notice of a boy in the marketplace who is fascinated with the magic being practice on the street. He wants more than illusion, so he’s enticed by a promise of more. After learning all the tricks of the street magicians, he’s brought to the Palace. There he learns better illusions, but they are still illusions. Finally, he is taught the word of magic that makes problems disappear, for a price. He’s so desperate for real magic, he’s willing to pay this ambiguous “price”. The magic is real – it will make a problem disappear. The price is that something of value to him also disappears. It’s different what that something is – it could be a body part, or a friend, or even a favorite pillow. Eventually, he gets to the point where he’s not willing to give up anything more of value and he leaves.

Final thoughts: This story has such a great build to the climax. The boy just wants to understand all the tricks of magic. He masters all the slight of hand and illusion that he sees. The word of magic is beyond him, though. He can’t figure out the trick, because of course there must be a trick. Where do all the things go that disappear? I can’t quite figure out who the narrator is. In one place, it’s implied they are a trusted advisor, sending emissaries to woo in the new court magician. In another place, it’s almost as if they are the castle itself. Regardless, I find the idea of introducing the word of magic to another unsuspecting individual, knowing what will happen to them, to be a bit macabre. At least no one is forced to use the word. However, the narrator knows some people just can’t help themselves. They want to know, and they continue to use the word even when they find out the price. It does make me wonder how many things I value I’d be willing to give up before I stopped. The current court magician gave up many nonessential body parts (fingers, toes, teeth) before he drew the line. I don’t value power enough, so I’m sure I never would have been chosen in the first place.

Title comes from: The story is all about the newest court magician

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