Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Trick and Magic

"You're a wizard, Harry."
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

The cover art kinda reminds me of Vampire Hunter D even though the art style is completely different.

Most knowlege of magic was lost after the medieval witch hunts, and it was only about a century ago when Aleister Crowley and other magicians started conducting serious research on witchcraft in order to recover all the magic that was lost. Magic is a talent you're born with and very few of these natural magicians exist: all of them are members of, and observed by the international organization the Order of Zenith, and at this moment, only six magicians are known to live. But the fundamentals to the workings of magic, research methods regarding magic and many more topics can be studied by anyone, and in the century that has passed since the renewed interest in magic, witchcraft has developed into a proper academic field, with people across the world studying it, even if they can't conduct magic themselves, similar to how not all Literature students actually go on to write books. The existence of magic is undeniable, but not every culture and country has a proper history of magic due the relatively young age of the field and because magicians themselves are very rare. Japan in particular has very little affinity with magic.

Which is why it became big news when it was announced that Jousui University would be opening the very first Magic Faculty of Japan, and not only that, they even managed to rope in one of the six living magicians as a teacher! Narrator Amane is one of the students in the first class of the Magic Faculty, and is placed in a small seminar class with Ririko, Hio, Imina, Rie and Chisato, five girls and best of friends who have been in the same class ever since elementary, going from Jousui Elementary to Jousui Secondary and now all together in the Magic Faculty of Jousui University. The six students are especially lucky, as they are placed in the seminar class taught by Sakyou Shiina himself, one of the six magicians on this world. Shiina can be a bit of a trickster, but he takes things more seriously after a strange threatening message is broadcast during the opening ceremony of the academic year, where a voice calling themselves Aleister Crowley announces that someone here will be chosen as a sacrifice and they are challenged to deduce who the victim will be, and who the culprit is. At first, it sounds like a bad prank, but one day, Ririko fails to appear in class, and when Shiina uses the magic spell Search, they learn she's on the roof of the building. But when they find her there, she's lying unconsciously on the floor, her face horribly mutilated. Luckily, Ririko will survive the attack and Shiina even declares Ririko's face can be saved, but the police are facing a riddle: the staircase security camera shows that Ririko had been the only person to go up the rooftop that day until she was discovered by Shiina and the others, and there are no other ways to reach or leave the rooftop. For a second, suspicion falls on magic, but that is impossible too. Not only is Shiina the only magician around, current knowledge of magic is still nowhere the level of medieval magicians, and many magic spells are currently "Lost Tasks": spells we know once existed, but of which knowledge is gone. Spells that could make this attack on Ririko possible, like levitation or psycho-kinesis, simply don't exist now. So if it is not magic and not a human act, what made this impossible attack possible in Kuzumi Shiki's Tricksters (2005)?

Tricksters is a six-part light novel series from the mid 2000s and as you will have realized by now, it's one of those mystery novels that feature supernatural story elements and people who have been following this blog for a longer time now I absolutely love it when fair-play puzzlers make use of supernatural elements, as many of my favorite reads these last few years have done exactly that. The initial setting might remind you a bit of Harry Potter, because it's about a school setting and magic, but fortunately, you won't be thinking of Harry Potter all the time because ultimately, the concepts are very different here: not only are there only six magicians in this world (who are all being watched by the Order of Zenith), knowledge of magic too is still relatively shallow, with known spells being fairly limited in their range and power. This helps keep the mystery plot fair of course, as you can't get away just by saying a magician did it. The explanation that magic, as an academic field, is similar to Literature and that people can study the topic without actually practicing it themselves, is pretty easy to understand too.  

And it's also clear right from the start this isn't going to be a normal detective story, as the book basically opens with a Challenge to the Reader, albeit an unusual one. "A Challenge from a Magician" tells the reader that in the following six chapters, people will be deceived and tricked in seven different ways, and it's up to the reader to figure out all seven acts of deception. Interestingly, the challenge is about finding out that there's deception going on, and is not explicitly asking you to solve it. Some are pretty easy to identify, like the reader instantly realizes *some trickery* is going on regarding the impossible attack on Ririko even if you might not figure out how it was done immediately, but some of the other deceptions are well... very deviously hidden, and it did add a fun extra layer to the book. Obviously, this focus on trickery is what gave this book its title.

And it's the seven-fold trickery going on that makes this a surprisingly fun read. You'll be through this book fairly swiftly, as it's not particularly long and most of the text consist of dialogue, but the story offers more mystery than just the initial attack on Ririko. After her attack, some other mysterious events follow, but these events still bring the reader (and narrator Amane and Shiina) back to the same questions: why and how was Ririko attacked on the rooftop, and how did the assaillant get away, because it would have been impossible with or without the use of magic. Because this is a detective story that goes through all the effort to introduce a magic setting, I assume very few readers will be surprised that magic is involved in the trickery in some manner, but figuring out how magic is used won't be easy, especially as the book does a good job at setting limitations on the known types of magic and their effective range. The solution to the locked room situation is therefore quite satisfying, as the book never feels like it's actually cheating you, even though it is called Tricksters. That combined with the fact the mystery plot unfolds beyond the initial locked room situation makes this an amusing to read overall. You'll be thinking of the "seven deceptions" all the time and try to figure out where something is not quite right and whether someone is being deceived in some way and these deceptions do intertwine well.

Tricksters is a fun, short read that makes good use of its magic setting to present an original mystery story, and the book also does justice to its title by really trying to deceive the reader in more than one way, having a much deeper mystery plot than you'd initially expect. I initially became interested in this series because I had heard good things about the third entry of this series (Tricksters D), but it was mentioned it was best to read these books in order (or at least one of the first two books), so I started with this one. It certainly got me interested in the rest of the short series, so expect more Tricksters in the future here.

Original Japanese title(s): 久住四季『トリックスターズ』


  1. Oh cool, I quite like the idea of the author telling you how many instances of misdirection there are and challenging you to find them. Kind of like an inverse Nine Wrong Answers. In the one you specifically know the location of the misdirections, whereas here finding where they are is the crux of the puzzle.

    The setting where magic has been essentially forgotten, and is studied, but not practiced, academically reminds me of a novel I read a few years back, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, since that's exactly the way things stand at the beginning of the book. It was a long (and very good) pastiche of Victorian literature, and one of the big things about the book is that it's peppered with footnotes quoting extensively from these academic works. (Not pedantically, à la Van Dine.)

    In a bit of synchronicitous timing, I just picked up a novel involving magic and its inherent limitations, Garrett's Too Many Magicians. I'm excited to read it, especially as it placed 14th in the Hoch list, although it does seem to have come in for a bit of criticism lately. Time will tell what I think of it, but reading it will have to wait a bit because...

    My copy of Death of the Living Dead arrives tomorrow! I'm really excited to read it! Especially as tomorrow also happens to be a. the first full day of winter break, and b. the day I get my booster shot. So having a nice long mystery to read should be just what the doctor ordered :)

    1. Not exactly the same, but most of the Toujou Genya novels (save for the one I reviewed three weeks ago) have a segment before the end where Genya just lists up everything that bothers him about the case, and he solves the cases by finding all the answers. These lists are long, like... 50-80 questions long. They function as a kind of challenge to the reader too, but no way anyone is going to find all the answers :P

      I haven't read Too Many Magicians yet, though I do remember having seen mixed reviews (relatively) lately. While I do read a lot of mystery with supernatural settings nowadays with time travel, zombies, aliens, the Land of Oz and more, I don't read that many with "actual magic" actually now I think about it, Tricksters is rather the exception in that regard.

      Hope you'll like Death of the Living Dead! I haven't seen the actual book myself yet ^^'

  2. Another intriguing review. As I read it, I (like Kacey Crain, above) thought of Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" stories. But sticking to the topic, TRICKSTERS sounds intriguing. It has a couple interesting things in common with another book you reviewed last month, Aizawa Sako's MEDIUM. Both have supernatural elements, English-language titles, and enchanting cover art.

    This has been quite a season for fair-play mysteries set in supernatural conditions. I think I've said elsewhere that DEATH AMONG THE UNDEAD and DEATH OF THE LIVING DEAD were both excellent. (The movie based on Imamura's book was fun, but I thought it took liberties).

    In your response to Kacey, you mentioned mysteries set in the land of Oz. Tell me more!

    1. Kobayashi's Märchen Murder series are murder mysteries set both in our world and the world of children's literature, with characters in one world sharing memories with characters in the other world (while having their own, specific personalities). The first book was about Wonderland for example, with Alice being accused of a series of murders committed in Wonderland, while the avatars in our world try to figure things out because logic doesn't quite work the same way in Wonderland as here. The second book was a sort of Marvel Cinematic Universe with the works of E.T.A. Hoffman, while the one I read a few weeks ago was set in the Land of Oz, about a murder that happens while Bill the Lizard (from Wonderland) is lost in the Land of Oz and trying to return to Wonderland with the help of Queen Ozma, Dorothy and her gang. Sadly enough, Yasumi passed away last year, so the fourth volume with Tinkerbell is also the last in the series.

    2. Martin Gardner did a similar thing with Visitors from Oz, but it sounds like Kobayashi Yasumi's series was more successful. (Gardner's book was good, but I didn't think it worked as well as it could have).

      I love mysteries with Lewis Carroll references. Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock is great fun.

      And of course, Arisugawa's "Jabberwocky" (from The English Garden Mystery) was bafflingly clever. I learned a lot about Osaka geography from that story. I had to use two roadmaps and a subway map to make sense of the clues. I first found "Jabberwocky" in an anthology called アリス殺人事件: 不思議の国のアリス ミステリーアンソロジー which also includes stories by Miyabe Miyuki and Yamaguchi Masaya. Now I'll put Kobayashi's books on my want list. Thanks.