Friday, 31 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Queen of Mages' by Benjamin Clayborne

This is a curious one. I’m used to fantasy that starts off with swords being waved around, or a few magical thunderbolts, or perhaps some bizarre creature putting in an appearance. This is quite different: a political assassination, then it’s straight into an aristocratic world of balls and hunts and elegant meals and jewels and finery, and a mother trying to pair off her shy son with the wealthy (and beautiful) young widow next door. With very few changes, it could be a Regency romance. However, the beautiful widow also has a strange but intriguing ability to start fires with her mind, and that’s enough to keep me reading on despite the lace and robin’s egg soup.

The other big hurdle to overcome initially is the vast (and I mean vast) array of names and titles and estates. I felt I should be taking notes to try to keep up with it. A map would have helped with some of the references to places, too. It seemed as if every single character was named, and that means title, first name, family name, estate, plus all the servants, local officials, innkeepers, even the horses, sometimes. In the end, I just let it wash over me, and that was easy to do, because the writing style is nicely readable, with a generous dollop of humour, although it’s sometimes an odd and distracting mixture of modern idiom and old-fashioned language.

The world-building is a strange mix. On the one hand, the background is the totally conventional one: kings, dukes and counts, the usual array of merchants and craftsmen and peasants, castles and towns and villages and inns in a largely agricultural landscape. It's low-technology (no guns or steam), although the way of life, with trips into the countryside for recreation and elaborate entertainment for the wealthy, feels vaguely eighteenth century. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels very ordinary, somehow, as if there’s no scope for anything unexpected to happen. No orcs or dragons or unfeasibly hairy and aggressive beasties to pop out of the woods, nothing more threatening than a bear. The character names don’t help, either, for although they’re not all boring traditional (real-world) names, they’re also not distinctive enough to be memorable. They fall very much at the John Smith end of the naming spectrum, rather than the Drizzt Do’Urden end. Altogether it’s difficult to get fully immersed in the fantasy world when these aspects are so un-fantastic.

On the other hand, there are some nicely unusual touches - such as the trained valo or vala each titled aristocrat has, assigned on reaching adulthood, and far more than simply a servant. And the magic, while very low-key so far, is intriguing. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere in only a few people, and I’m very interested to find out just why that should be. I also very much like the differences in the way it manifests in different characters (I won’t say any more than that). The religion, too, is nicely worked out, with eight different ‘aspects’ and the effect that has on religious practices. This is incorporated into the marriage ceremony too, which is very neatly done.

One thing the author does really well is the change in point of view. Very often authors use this as an excuse to keep two or three sub-plots moving until everything merges at the end, but here it's used very cleverly as a way to keep the main plot on the boil, while also filling in background, developing characters and relationships, and simply giving the reader a variety of perspectives. There are also a small number of chapters taken from the point of view of a different character altogether, where necessary, and this works well to fill in gaps in the plot or, in one case, to introduce an important character. Very nicely done, and even when the four main characters split up and the points of view follow the different plot-lines, it’s still driven by the needs of the plot rather than some arbitrary system of alternating.

The characters didn’t quite work for me, but that’s mainly because I didn’t much like any of them. Amira is wilful, Dardan is petulant, Katin is grumpy and Liam - OK, Liam’s all right. Maybe that’s just my weakness for charming young men taking over, who knows. Even though I understood why they behaved that way (and everyone's motivations were very clear), it didn't make them engaging, to me, anyway. But that’s just a personal thing, they were interesting enough, particularly Katin, I think, who has a sad background and finds herself making difficult choices. I had a lot of sympathy for her, even while I disliked her. And there's clearly more to Liam than meets the eye. Of the minor characters - well, let’s just say that it pays not to get too attached to any of them. This book has quite a horrifying death count.

The biggest problem I had with the book is one that’s hard to put my finger on. Tone, maybe. Superficially it starts off as a frothy and lighthearted romp, with a strong romantic streak, a caper, basically. There’s a rather prim degree of morality - prostitution is a great evil, the good guys are heroically restrained before marriage (and when they do succumb, they feel obliged to marry immediately), the Big Bad is seen to be evil because he attempts to rape the heroine (he doesn’t get further than an attempted kiss, actually, and then even his mother apologises afterwards). Again, it's more like a Regency romance than anything else at times. Yet there are moments of desperate action, with bodies piling up in droves, much darker episodes, actions have serious consequences and our noble heroes don’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets in their way. There’s also some moderately graphic sex. It’s as if the book can’t decide whether it’s frivolous and amusing entertainment, or is aiming more for gritty realism, and ends up veering alarmingly from one to the other, at times. But generally it gets darker and less frivolous as it goes along, so don't be fooled by the light-hearted early chapters.

Second problem is the length of the book. Now, big is very much the standard in fantasy, but I have no problem with that, but all those pages have to be filled with something. Too much of this book is padded with excess dialogue or a detailed description of scenery or food or explanation of exactly how something was done. It would have worked better for me with some tightening up. Then in the second half, as our hapless main characters are racing about looking for help, they stagger from one estate to the next, or yet another village, and it all begins to seems quite repetitive. There was a point where I would actually have liked a band of marauding orcs (or maybe Vaslanders) to appear, just to relieve the monotony of approaching yet another duke or count who might help. Now, I fully understand why all this happened, and it's extremely realistic, this is exactly how people would behave in these circumstances (right, we've tried count this and duke that, let's try baron so-and-so...). It's also a good way of demonstrating the different reactions to this new magic, both in the aristocracy (still looking for political advantage, for the most part) and in the common folk (varying from uneasy acceptance to outright fear). There's also the mages themselves, and how they deal with their new powers. All of this is interesting and I applaud the author for covering the consequences of the magical outbreak so thoroughly, but it did inevitably involve some repetition. Although, to be fair, the different and wildly unpredictable ways the various lords and ladies reacted lead to some seriously exciting moments, it has to be said.

The plot itself is rather good, and especially in the second half of the book, when the action takes over from too much frivolity, things get very dramatic indeed. The climactic battle is very well done, an extremely tense page-turner and very realistic, with everything following logically from what has gone before and the nature of the characters involved and their powers. Not the slightest sign of a deus ex machina anywhere. The aftermath sets the scene for the next book and also hints at some of the personal consequences for those with power. The second half of the book definitely has a more serious tone, as characters have to face up to the reality of the new world order - the mages with their power, and how it should be used.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, especially the second half. The author follows the ideas of the world he created and its magic system with impeccable logic, and isn't afraid to face up to the consequences, good or bad. I could have done with less emphasis on the romantic aspects, and the political machinations were impossible to follow without a basic list of families and estates, or better still, a map, but the action moments were terrific, genuinely exciting and unpredictable. Overall, I found it very difficult to rate. The plot, the magic system and the realism of people's actions and motivations would be a four star read, but for me personally the rather ordinary nature of the setting and some unevenness in parts of the writing keep it to three stars. If the story moves out beyond the immediate kingdom into the wider world in the next book and the author finds a more consistent tone, the rest of the series will be terrific.

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