Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
February 2014

PRESCRIPTION: The Black Magician Trilogy, by Trudi Canavan
SYMPTOMS: Fantasy, peasant hero, magic school, multiple perspectives, trilogies
DOSAGE: (out of five)

I admit it: starting with Alana and peaking with Potter, I am a sucker for school stories, whether they're for knights or for magic, and especially when they involve a character from modest means rising to seize a little power for the people. The Black Magician trilogy started out very much in that vein, with a street girl hurling a stone through a magical barrier that should have been impenetrable and finding herself the subject of a hunt from the Magicians' Guild. By the end of the second book, however, it was clear the direction of the story would shift to a larger scope with the introduction of an enemy kingdom and an insidious magical threat.

Though it's shelved in adult fantasy, the writing style reads like Young Adult. That is to say, there's a lot of action up front and the prose itself is lucid and doesn't draw attention to itself. One of the things that distinguishes it more as an adult book is the variety of character perspectives -- everyone from the teenage heroine Sonea to her balding tutor Rothan (whose perspective was usually my favorite). This variety of perspective offered a refreshing shift away from the typical school-based stories in that it allowed for a much wider view of not only the school and the heroine herself, but the political struggles both in the Guild and the kingdoms.

Like most commoners, Sonea despises Magicians, who purge the city of the street-dwellers (many of whom are Sonea's friends) every year. Despite hurling a rock at a magical shield, Sonea wasn't the defiant and fiery heroine I expected from the book's description, which I appreciated. She's reluctant, intractable, yet eager not to disappoint her aunt and uncle. Her brief misstep with the rock catapults her into an unexpected world of trouble with the Guild, which she is utterly unequipped to face. She is likable for her wit and her determination, and because, obviously, she's powerful enough to incite jealousy.

The jealousy she incites takes the form of two antagonists: the Magician whose shield she penetrated, and a Malfoy-like student, neither of whom believe a commoner should be allowed to study magic. It wouldn't be a magic school story without the bully-versus-guileless protagonist trope, and I was at least glad to find the bully had some skill of his own, but I would have preferred that bit take a back seat to the far more interesting conflict with the older magician, who attempts to sabotage Sonea's magical education by becoming her mentor.

Luckily, his attempt is foiled when Sonea stumbles across something she shouldn't -- the mysterious (and terrifying) High Lord of the Magicians' Guild, practicing Dark Magic -- and rather than killing her outright, the High Lord elects to make her his apprentice. This, in my opinion, was where Sonea's story really became fascinating.

And, since the High Lord was young-ish, dark-haired, dangerously powerful, witty, conflicted, and (at least in my mind) handsome, I wanted them to fall in love. Obviously. [See also: the Darkling, Numair, Sirius Black, Benedict Cumberbatch] Lucky for me, Canavan was of a similar mind, and delivered a satisfying romantic element which gave even higher stakes for the mounting tension of the final book.

There were a few aspects of the series that could have been better for me: the cat-and-mouse game Sonea plays with the Magicians attempting to find and recruit her in the first book went on ad tedium, though it was exciting to begin with, as did the bullying from her young school-rival and his posse. The series' major antagonistic force doesn't really come into play until the second book, and seemed to aim the plot in an unexpected direction which, though not disappointing, had few hints in the first book.

Overall, The Black Magician trilogy is a satisfying read with a number of interesting characters. It's a solid fantasy series with a well-developed world and magic system, which I liked well enough to delve into Canavan's second series set in Imardin.

PRESCRIPTION: The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa
SYMPTOMS: High fantasy, fairies, contemporary fantasy, young adult, love triangles
DOSAGE: (out of five)

I'm not a great lover of fairies, to be honest, but I found myself drawn into reading The Iron King because of Julie Kagawa's lovely writing-style. After reading the first few pages of The Iron Knight, a later book in the series, I found myself grinning at Kagawa's portrayal of Robin Goodfellow and picked up the first book in the series.

Meghan's father disappeared when she was a child, and ever since then, her home has never felt like home. She's dutiful and largely ignored by her family, except for her little brother and her best friend Robbie Good (yeah, we all see this one coming). When she starts seeing imps in the computer room at school and strange young men in armor watching her school bus, she wonders if she's going crazy. It isn't until her little brother is replaced by a violent changeling that Meghan learns the truth from Robbie: she is half fae, her father is the Summer King Oberon, and her little brother has been kidnapped. If she wants him back, she will have to journey to Faerie to find him.

At this point, I was having flashbacks to Labyrinth. The plot device of the kidnapped family member is a bit tired and was probably the most disappointing part of the book for me as I found it far less compelling than Meghan's personal journey of finding herself and finding her father (not her biological father, Oberon, but the man who raised her when she was young). The younger brother himself made very little impact on me as a character other than as a precocious kid who is almost saccharine in his cuteness, and I thought the story would have been better had Kagawa found a different catalyst for Meghan's journey.

The fairies themselves were, surprisingly, the stars of the books to me. Between Robin Goodfellow's clear chaotic tendencies, the vicious kelpies, bloodthirsty goblins, and Grimaulkin, the infuriatingly arch cat fairy of questionable intentions who helps Meghan along her journey, as long as she promises to owe him a favor in return, they showcased Kagawa's imagination and brought delight into the story that propelled me through the book. Most interesting to me was the concept of the Iron Fey, which Kagawa created: fairies that seem to go entirely against the nature of fairies (pun intended) to embody the forces of technology. These fairies are unlike regular fairies in that they can tolerate iron and electricity, and the Iron King (in whose role I cannot un-cast David Bowie) is, of course, the mastermind behind the kidnapping.

Meghan herself is another heroine who doesn't seem strong initially, but proves herself through her journey. She doesn't always do the wise thing -- for example, she makes lots of deals with lots of fairies, despite Robin's constant advice she not do so -- but she does it all because she sees it as necessary to saving her brother.

The romantic element is present, and oh how I wish it wasn't a love triangle, because as much as I love dark-haired and brooding love interests, tricksters are my weakness, and I'm almost certainly on the losing team. Love triangles are almost never interesting to me, but this case is almost an exception, if only because Meghan handles it like an actual person in that she tells the boys to shut up and stop fighting until they deal with the problem at hand. After one book, I'm not sold on Ash, though it was his perspective in the beginning of The Iron Knight that made me pick up the series to begin with.

The reason this book didn't get the fifth star was due to the somewhat tired plot elements surrounding the little brother, and a rather slow beginning, but the story was overall very enjoyable, and the last third involving the Iron King and the struggle to find him was fantastic. I will certainly pick up more of Kagawa's books in the future.

Read more by Lauren Harris


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