Baen, 2011, 423 pages
Jake Sullivan is a licensed private eye with a seriously hardboiled attitude. He also possesses raw magical talent and the ability to make objects in his vicinity light as a feather or as heavy as depleted uranium, all with a magical thought. It's no wonder the G-men turn to Jake when they need someone to go after a suspected killer who has been knocking off banks in a magic-enhanced crime spree.
Problems arise when Jake discovers the bad girl behind the robberies is an old friend, and he happens to know her magic is just as powerful as his. And the Feds have plunged Jake into a secret battle between powerful cartels of magic-users - a cartel whose ruthless leaders have decided that Jake is far too dangerous to live.
Hard Magic is pure action-packed fun with a misleading title (and blurb). You might think that it's a noir urban fantasy, ala Harry Dresden. I think that is what the author may have intended, particularly with the main character: gritty, growly tough guy bruiser Jack Sullivan, who starts the book as, yup, a private eye, though that becomes irrelevant after the first chapter. But while there are certainly "noir" elements, they mostly come from the 1930s setting, and the plot is a world-saving adventure against an ascendant Japanese Imperium, led by the immortal demigod Chairman Tokugawa, in the time between world wars.
Hard Magic is really a superhero novel. All the "magic" comes in the form of fairly defined sets of powers, each magical "Active" being gifted with one particular power. Jake Sullivan is a "Heavy" who can manipulate gravity. His ex-girlfriend, Delilah Jones, is a "Brute" with super strength. Another character, Faye, an orphan Okie adopted by a Portuguese farmer in California with a secret past of his own, turns out to be a "Traveler" who can teleport.
There are other magical powers, such as the necromancy wielded by the Germans and Russians during World War I, that turned dead armies into zombie armies. The Japanese Imperium has created an elite class of "Iron Guards" who get additional power by virtue of magical kanji branded onto them.
The "rules" for magic and the classification of different types of powers reminded me very strongly of a certain other author who treads this ground: I had to keep reminding myself that this was Larry Correia and not Brandon Sanderson.
I haven't read anything by Correia before, but this book appealed greatly to my sweet tooth for grand superheroics, epic sacrifices, earth-shaking showdowns, and totally ridiculous power stunts. Jake, who starts out just a big, tough war vet with gravity powers, has to fight his older brother, who is also a Heavy and the most powerful of the Iron Guard in service to the Chairman. In true superhero style, they fight a series of battles in which each time Jake gets his ass kicked, before the spectacular, bloody finale. Faye, during the climax, runs/teleports around blowing away ninjas and Japanese soldiers right and left with a shotgun, before [Spoiler (click to open)]teleporting a fucking battlecruiser dirigible and also taking on the Chairman solo.
Correia fills the book with famous names: everyone from Stonewall Jackson to Nikola Tesla to Einstein turns out to be a magical Active of one kind or another.
One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. The appearance of esoteric and ethereal abilities, magical fires and feats of strength, in recent decades are the purest demonstration of natural selection. Surely, in time, that general law will require the extinction of traditional man.
— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Man and Selection of Human Magical Abilities, (1879).
The science, of course, is as cheesy and pulpish as the history. This is a book where the Japanese are evil "Japs" threatening the world (yes, the slur is entirely appropriate for the era, and yes, there are some Japanese characters among the good guys) and only red-blooded Americans stand against them. Opposing the Imperium are the Knights of the Grimnoir, a secret society of magicals who theoretically are sworn to oppose evil, but of course the international leadership are a bunch of wusses so rogues like Jake and Faye have to go beat the Chairman themselves. The Grimnoir include other notables such as General Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing and John Moses Browning.
The ending involves explosions, ninjas, sky pirates, explosions, Japanese dirigibles launching fighters like aircraft carriers, a super-Big Bad badder than this book's Big Bad, and lots of explosions.
Verdict: Larry Correia is obviously a big dorky aficionado of guns, B-movies, superheroes, and "America fuck yeah!" politics. He's packed Hard Magic full of enough tropes to power an alternate Marvel Universe, and yes, I could tell he was thinking in movie frames when he wrote his action scenes. Don't be misled by the title or the cover: Hard Magic is more "pulp-era X-Men vs. a Japanese Magneto" than it is urban fantasy, noir, or steampunk. There's world-saving to be done, and this is the first start of a series I've read in a while that really makes me want to read the next book.
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