“Higher, My Gallows” by Alice Brook (20907 words)
This is a story of magic and costs, of bad decisions and atonement. Ange (full name Angela) is a woman working as a sort of police liaison specializing in cases that use magic. As a magic user herself, it’s something she knows quite well, but it’s not something she can really pursue openly thanks to a rash action that led to not only her expulsion from a magic academy but the loss of part of her soul. Which kinda gives her a chip on her shoulder, especially when paired with older and deeper insecurities stemming from things she’s done when still a child. Which makes for an interesting lead up to what happens when she’s called to investigate a body that ends up unraveling a whole lot of stuff that probably should have been locked up tight.
Throughout the story, the theme of the past reasserting itself is something I noticed and enjoyed. It’s fitting that the story is something of a historical urban fantasy mystery, as Ange ends up having to deal with a saying that I’ve been hearing a lot watching the BBC Marple series: “It’s not settled until it’s settled right.” Which is to say, Ange has developed her own coping mechanisms for dealing with her past, but pretty much all of them involve running from it. She finds herself having done something that she couldn’t control, and people are hurt because of it, and instead of trying to make amends and do something about it, she runs off. With her work with the police, though, she ends up partnered with Sergeant Frank Heartnell, who acts as something like her conscience. He keeps her on task, and in this case gives her something of the drive she needs to face what she’s been running from, finally revisiting it so that she can try to put it to bed. The story further complicates that by bringing up older sins, ones that have little to do with Ange herself but that solidify the pattern, showing how when she confronts not just her own past but that of the world she lives in, she can do great good, and when she acts in this way to try and bring justice into the world, it’s an act of atoning for her own mistakes, by helping others, by choosing in some ways to risk herself rather than flee.
The setting and the world is also just fascinating. To me it mixes a noirish feel with a more modern police procedural to spotlight the way that Ange is an outsider but also the way that her thinking of herself as an outsider is outdated. She’s made connections with the police, and even if she’s antagonistic sometimes, she does have a place there. I’m not entirely sure if this is second world or alt-history, to be honest, but to me that’s not a distinction that’s super important to make. I love the world building and how it gets this grimy feel to things, a sort of festering that goes well with the themes, because it represents these rotting wounds that have never been seen to. The gallows is a reminder of a past that hasn’t been put to rest, a violence and fear and anger simmering just below the surface that the story’s events bring out into the open. Again, it’s something that has to be confronted openly in order for there to be the possibility for reconciliation, for healing. And the tone and style make for a fast-paced, wry read that’s quite fun. The character work is complicated, the stakes incredibly high, and the payoff delightful. It also manages a partnership between Ange and Heartnell that works and is meaningful and complete without being romantic and I love that about the story. Especially because I love procedural mysteries, I find it’s something that isn’t done enough. It makes for an excellent read that you should definitely check out!