Novel: Breach by W.L. Goodwater

New novelist W.L. Goodwater makes a riveting debut with Breach (2018), a vivid fusion of historical fantasy and spy thriller. It’s the aftermath of the second World War, and a fraught Cold War has descended over Europe—but in this alternate world, magic is commonplace. Indeed, the Berlin Wall is positively dripping with it; it’s less a physical barrier than a magical one, casting a massive spell that securely divides the city. When Allied spies detect a small, gradually expanding breach in the wall’s magic, however, they worry that the uncertain peace may be in jeopardy. They send for help from an obscure arm of the American government: the Office of Magical Research and Deployment. The head of the OMRD’s research department, Karen O’Neil, is a talented magician taking an academic approach to magic’s mysteries, but soon finds herself seconded to the CIA in Berlin, where she becomes an integral part in the effort to prevent the wall’s imminent collapse from starting World War III.

Breach is a scintillating genre hybrid with a firm grip on its disparate genre elements, from its magic system to its tradecraft, its warped alternate world to its intelligence-game scheming. If there’s a section of your shelf devoted to this quirky subgenre, this novel belongs right up there next to stuff like Tim Powers’ Declare or Ian Tregillis’ Milkweed Triptych. Its memorable cast of characters is headlined by Karen, an extremely likable, dynamic protagonist. Her journey from low-level magician/espiocrat to powerful, larger-than-life hero makes for a brisk, accessible read that should appeal to fans of both genres and beyond. Late in the book, there are some murky passages as the plot builds to chaotic confrontation, but in the end the adventure resolves quite satisfyingly. Overall, a striking and inventive first novel; I look forward to seeing more in this world.

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