Written by Karen Miller
Published by Orbit in 2011
A little while ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Elantris, an excellent book which posed the question of what happens in a magical kingdom when the magic goes awry and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. A Blight of Mages answers a variation on the question- what happens when a kingdom’s magic starts breaking down?
Blight of Mages is an interesting book. As I just mentioned, it poses an interesting question. It also provides a potent social commentary with the two main characters being poles apart in terms of background and only forming a match in magic terms. The female lead, Barl, is one of the kingdom’s working class, creating clocks for the wealthy alongside a few dozen others in a kind of workhouse that’s familiar to those who’ve read some Victorian history, if it’s somewhat cleaner. However, she’s frustrated, as an exceptionally gifted mage, she wants to get out and change the world. Two things stand in her way: lack of access to ‘The Academy’ where much mage-lore is stored and her class, with no powerful family backing her, no-one will allow her to use her gifts or respect her talents. At the other end of the scale is Morgan Danfey, one of the ruling class whose only magic is almost unrestrained and is blessed with all the wealth and power that Barl only dreams of. The only things holding him back are his father’s insistence he finds a wife to replace his lost sweetheart and the council of mages who see him as a little too reckless for his own good. The reason for his recklessness, though, is a feeling he has. A feeling that magic is ending and the kingdom must be defended. You see, only their kingdom has magic. The surrounding nations of ‘barbarians’ are superbly talented as warriors, merchants and builders but none are mages, so are odviously uncivilized.
The book has a great premise and is well written, but there’s one key issue that stops me from praising it too much. Neither of the two main characters are actually that likeable, nor are many of the others you encounter besides Barl’s brother. Barl herself is just too needlessly angry and hot headed; yes, being oppressed is a reason to be angry but she comes across as purely petty in many ways, making it hard to empathise with her even as she does develop as a character. Morgan is the same; an interestingly flawed character with his own reasons for frustrations and hurts, but overall his overbearing attitude makes him hard to relate to as well. Whilst this is compensated for in a good way due to the interesting world and a realistic populace, the brashness (and, later on, the sheer perversity) of the main characters stops the book from becoming the classic that it could have been.
There’s also a lesser flaw in that the magic, whilst magic admittedly, doesn’t feel that… logical, to me. I know that’s an odd thing to say but the actual working of magic in this world don’t feel as well set out as it does in others, such as, for instance, Codex Alera or even the Warhammer universe. Perhaps it’s explained in the other two books in the series, An Innocent Mage and Prodigal Mage, however this book, being the prequel, might have spent a little time to introduce those of us, like myself, unfamiliar to the world.
To sum up, the book’s actually like its characters. Good in places, quite innovative and interesting but strangely hard to like.
Until next time!