[REVIEW] Trace by Sam Starbuck

This is another guest review by my friend and collaborator, Dawn. Click here for more guest posts :)  -Ramona

traceTrace by Sam Starbuck

Warnings (highlight to read): Polyamory (M/M/F). Brief discussions or descriptions of rape, torture, extreme violence and racism typical to a prison. 

From the Blurb

Colin Byrne is a pickpocket, an artist, and an occasional consultant for the police. He’s also an ex-felon, an initiate into the feral, unspoken magic that only prisoners know: how to vanish, how to tell fortunes, how to steal souls. Now the man who put him in prison wants him to return to Railburg State Correctional Facility to help investigate a case. [full blurb]


Magical realism as a genre thrives on making magic seem natural in an otherwise entirely mundane and realistic environment. Prison is already a place separated from the rules of normal society, so it’s a naturally contained setting where the laws of reality are similarly warped. Starbuck utilises the setting by making the prison magic (“mojo”) of the story evolve out of practices and elements common to incarceration. Prisoners find God (except He finds some of them back), tattoos have more than just a symbolic meaning, the desire to become invisible sometimes leads to the ability to do so, and tricks that seem like a con man’s sleight of hand have actual power. The powers granted to different characters and the way they use them is fascinating. The flavour of magic born of confidence tricks and the power of belief used in this novella is strongly reminiscent of the magic found in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (and as far as I’m concerned this is a mark in Trace’s favour.)

The conflict Colin feels as he is pulled by the opposing obligations of his original mission — breaking up a money-laundering ring — and making sure that the inmates who become  his makeshift family inside Railburg survive the coming storm is very compelling. The secondary characters are also fascinating, with rich internal lives of their own.

The only real drawback of this story is that the romance between Colin, Joseph (his undercover police officer lover) and Joseph’s wife Analise is stifled by the fact that Colin spends much of the story separated from them. While the tender domestic scenes between these characters give Colin something to cling to as he fights human, supernatural and internal demons on the inside, the romance ends up being a very small part of the plot.


While light on romance, this is a lushly detailed and original fantasy book that I highly recommend.



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