Kakistocracy (The Conradverse Chronicles, 2)

Image of Kakistocracy (The Conradverse Chronicles, 2)
Release Date: 
October 17, 2023
CAEZIK SF & Fantasy
Reviewed by: 

“an easy read that provokes laughter throughout, but surprises with its serious themes and meaningful contemplations of friendship, loyalty, and bravery.”

Conrad Brent is back in this sequel to The Middling Affliction, with more rollicking magical mayhem in New York City. Once again, Conrad must save the unsuspecting city from the magical threats that would destroy or control it, and he must do it without any magic of his own. He lies, bluffs, cajoles, and smart-alecks his way through a world of threats more powerful than he is, relying on a host of friends and reluctant allies along the way.

Conrad’s daring and panache are what make this series sing. As he describes his own personal philosophy: “When life hands you a watermelon-sized lemon like this, it’s okay to be scared witless while you make lemonade, but you better mix in a ten-pound bag of sugary bravado before you drink it.” Despite his own lack of power, Conrad cares about his friends, sticks to his principles, and never lets the fact that his opponents are infinitely stronger than he is prevent him from throwing himself into the firing line. Even when the lemon turns out “to be the size of one of those fair-winning pumpkins,” Conrad finds a way to make lemonade.

The primary antagonists for this book are part of a political movement that has gained power in New York City, getting a bombastic populist elected as mayor and using his power to take control of the magical world. References to “fake news” and other details make an inevitable and surely intentional parallel between the buffoon of a mayor and a certain real world US politician, which may not win Shvartsman readers from that side of the political spectrum. The focus of the book is not political, however, and those antics merely serve as a front for what is ultimately a ploy to gather unimaginable magical power.

While addressing this main threat, Conrad must also deal with a host of other difficulties that divide his attention and, usually, threaten his life. An interdimensional fae assassin holds a grudge and will kill him if he takes off his protective armband, even for a moment. His friend and mentor Mose, leader of the organization that protects New York City from magical attack, has lost his powers and is drowning his sorrows in alcohol in the Australian outback. Angels and demons are threatening to kick off Armageddon over a nicely aged bottle of wine. And Conrad just might be falling in love.

In Kakistocracy, Shvartsman also brings back Moira O’Leary, a dark necromancer who was one of the more entertaining characters from the first book. Conrad and Moira find themselves unexpectedly on the same side, a pairing akin to matter and antimatter. Even as they work together, they trade a continuous stream of sharp-edged banter, as when Moira lets Conrad use her sword: “If you chip the blade, I will reanimate your corpse so I can kill you all over again.”

Amusing repartee and over-the-top magical creatures make for a funny book, but Kakistocracy, like its predecessor, transcends the merely comical. Shvartsman is not content with an episodic series in which static characters return to battle the monster of the week. His characters change, suffer loss, make hard choices, deal with friends who fall on different sides of a political spectrum, and learn to rethink relationships in a new light. The world of the novels continues to expand with new revelations.

Like The Middling Affliction, Kakistocracy balances hard choices with humor, deadly threats with wit, and grief with optimism. What remains is an easy read that provokes laughter throughout, but surprises with its serious themes and meaningful contemplations of friendship, loyalty, and bravery. Readers who enjoyed The Middling Affliction will certainly enjoy this new installment and look forward with anticipation to the next.