This short story is a 2018 Nebula finalist and runs to dark fantasy/horror. It was published in Lightspeed magazine in January of 2018. Full disclosure: Pinsker is on the Board of Directors of SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

A street child is interested in magic. At the narrator’s request, the boy is taught magic sleight-of-hand tricks. Because he shows genuine talent for the work, he is taken in by the Palace for tutoring. He starts to wonder if everything is a trick and asks about real magic, so it is granted to him in the form of a word. He becomes the Court Magician and handles things for the Regent. Real magic has a cost, though. What is the boy willing to pay for his position?

On the good side, this is a pretty creepy story. It’s character-driven, and there’s no real plot, but the narrative unfolds well enough that I stayed interested all the way to the end. This is clearly a system that eats people, so they have to have a constant stream of willing novices to handle the Regent’s dirty work for them. The kind of people who need to be handled suggest dissent in the kingdom; we gather the Regent is not an empathetic ruler. Pinsker seems to always write thoughtful stories, and this one is about the cost of serving someone else and how this can compromise ourselves, making us less than the person we were–especially when there are morality issues involved.

On the not so great side, this is also very much about being a victim. The boy is represented as being needy, hungry for knowledge and swayed by the tutoring and luxury he’s offered. He’s attracted and groomed for victimhood, and becomes complicit in it. He never really makes any effort to change the system, and just sort of fades away at the end. Also, we never learn who the narrator is. Maybe this is supposed to be mysterious, but it leaves a loose end.

Four and a half stars.