Innocent Fun

by Dan H

Dan reviews Karen Miller's Innocent Mage, muses on “Romantic Fantasy” and resolves to read more books by Australian women
It may come as a surprise to some Ferretbrain readers to learn that I actually don't read all that much. Unlike our esteemed editor, whose to-read pile is taller than she is, or Arthur, who chews through books like some sort of highly efficient book-chewing device, I read rarely and sporadically. It's horribly unsophisticated of me, but given the choice of curling up with a good book or playing a computer game with the TV on in the background, I'll usually play a computer game.

As a result, I read through Karen Miller's Innocent Mage (technically called “The” Innocent Mage but the “the” is in an extremely small typeface) extremely slowly.

Umm, spoilers, etc. etc.

The story begins with a young man named Asher deciding to set off for the great city of Dorana in order to seek his fortune. In the prologue he leaves the family home where he lives with his elderly father and violent, abusive brothers. In chapter one he arrives at the city.

No travelling, no distractions, no sidequests, no five-hundred page buildup. No lore-dumps or exposition. “I'm going to go to the city to seek my fortune” leading straight to “here I am in the city where I will seek my fortune”.

I almost cried.

It gets better. You see it turns out that Asher is the one fated to fulfil an ancient prophecy, avert disaster and save the world. And by “turns out” I mean “is stated, clearly and unambiguously, at the start of the book”.

I almost cried again.

Words cannot express how much I hate books that are coy about prophecy. If your protagonist is a seemingly normal guy, and there's a prophecy about a seemingly normal guy who will develop teh uber powerz and save the world I will not be surprised when they turn out to be the same person. Worse, I will be annoyed, because by trying to keep it a secret, you have led me to believe – if fleetingly – that there exists the possibility that you aren't reusing the same plot that has been in circulation since Magician. One of the (many) things that annoyed me about Across the Face of the World was that they kept making cryptic references to this “right hand of God” who was transparently going to turn out to be the viewpoint character who had no other reason to be in the freaking book.

Anyway, I should probably explain what the book is about, and here I run into a bit of a problem, because from the perspective of a habitual fantasy reader, this book isn't about very much at all. There's a prophecy, but it doesn't affect much until the end of the book. There's a villain, but you don't even find out that he's alive until the last few chapters. There's a setting and some backstory, but it's revealed gradually and through multiple viewpoints, and it doesn't seem all that important, at least to the events of the first volume.

The first book mainly seems to focus on Asher arriving in the city and developing a relationship with prince Gar, who but for his lack of magical prowess, should have been heir to the throne of Dorana and the legacy of its sorcerer-kings.

To put it another way, the book mainly focuses on ... what do you call those things again? It's on the tip of my tongue. Oh yes: characters. With, whatchacallems. Personalities.

Okay, I'm being glib, but I did genuinely have trouble coming up with a plot summary for Innocent Mage, not because nothing happens in it, but because none of the things I usually reach for as key plot-elements in Fantasy happen in it. There isn't a war. There is a Prophecy but most people don't know about it and it's only mentioned when it actually directly matters. There isn't a Dark Lord until right at the end, and nobody goes on a long journey to get anywhere or looks for a mystic artifact.

To digress for a moment, there's be a lot of chat recently about the emergence of “romantic fantasy”. Wikipedia describes it thus:

Romantic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction, describing a fantasy story using many of the elements and conventions of the romance genre

It goes on to elucidate:

One of the key features of romantic fantasy involves the focus on relationships, social, political, and romantic

Now maybe I'm missing something, but is “focusing on relationships” really something you can say specifically comes “from the romance genre”? Doesn't it come from ... well ... most fiction that isn't SF and Fantasy, in fact?

Fantasy readers have a rather horrible attitude to Romance, and get an almost panicked reaction if they catch a sniff of it in a fantasy novel. Thomas M Wagner of SF wrote a particularly damning review of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife which included the following gem:

Because the most disappointing aspect of Beguilement isn't that it's a simple love story, but that in telling it, Bujold does little more than lazily follow formula. I'll admit the most exposure I've had to romance storytelling has taken the form of Hollywood romantic comedies. But is there any other genre on earth whose formula can be best described as a dull postponement of the inevitable? Are they gonna end up together at the end? Do bears...? You know....

Let's see. Is there any other genre whose formula can best be described as a dull postponement of the inevitable? How about a genre where the average book is at least six hundred pages long, and part of a trilogy of books that are also at least six hundred pages long. How about a genre which has been retelling the same tired quest narrative for more than fifty years, in which the ending of said narrative is frequently explained in rhyming couplets on the title page. You get the idea.

There is a sense in which The Innocent Mage bears the hallmarks of “Romantic Fantasy” - its focus is primarily on relationships, particularly the relationship between Asher and Gar (who are both, I should add, entirely heterosexual). I don't think that means it “uses the elements and conventions of the romance genre” I just think it means it was written by a girl.

I know this is an overgeneralisation, but most of the fantasy novels I have read recently that I have actually liked have been written by women (and published in Australia, go figure). More specifically there's a definite, for want of a better word, girlyness to a lot of the fantasy that's really captured my attention recently (Trudi Canavan, I still heart you loads, even if you did trick me into reading Across the Face of the World). Male fantasy writers can't seem to resist the lure of Epic Stories About War in which the characters are secondary to the world they inhabit (see George R. R. Martin and his essentially disposable ensemble cast, China Mieville and the fucking wire-laying sequence, and of course Russel “Thousand Hours of Worldbuilding to five hundred hours of writing” Kirkpatrick). Of course I'm sure there are also female writers out there working on tortuously long series about War and Betrayal, and I'm sure there's men out there writing taught character-driven fantasy (although so far I haven't found any).

Bottom line though: Books by Australian women are awesome.

Anyway, The Awakened Mage is a character-driven fantasy novel focusing primarily on the relationship between its two main characters, the plain speaking fisherman Asher (who has a destiny) and the magically crippled Prince Gar (who also has a destiny, but of a different sort). The setting is fairly well realised, but not forced down your throat in great indigestible lumps. We find out through Asher that the kingdom of Lur is ruled by the Doranens, a fair-haired race of warrior mages from the north (it's still fantasy, expect name soup). We later find out through the prophetess Dathne that the Doranens are actually invaders who more or less took over Lur and repressed much of its native culture. We find out that the Horrors in the North are held at bay by a thing called The Wall which is maintained by the magical weatherworking of the Doranen royalty.

As fantasy settings go, it's pretty standard, and pretty robust. There is, of course, Terrible Darkness beyond the wall, and there is Prophecy to the effect that the wall is going to come crashing down any day now. What's unusual is how little the reader's attention is drawn to all this stuff.

The book is told primarily (although not exclusively) from the viewpoints of Asher, Dathne and Gar, all of whom are real, human people with motivations that, by and large, aren't concerned with evil wizards they don't know about. Asher is primarily concerned about saving up enough money to go back home and buy a fishing boat. Gar is primarily concerned about his relationship with his father and his sister, and with the day-to-day business of administrating the Kingdom. Even Dathne, who is technically all about the Big Prophecy Plot spends most of the book getting to know Asher, and trying to reconcile the fact that she likes the guy with the fact that she's going to have to sacrifice him to save the kingdom, and generally behaving like a person rather than an all powerful plot-syphon.

It isn't until the last few chapters of the book that the “main villain” shows up, and the book doesn't suffer for this in the slightest. Indeed, it benefits enormously. If Morg (the great evil from beyond the wall, who was the former lover of Barl, the woman who set up the wall – see what I mean about there actually being quite a lot of detail in the setting) had been present from the start then I would have spent the whole book saying “yes yes, but when are you going to get to the actual plot?” Instead, the first book (it's a duology, by the way, which is like a trilogy only without the superfluous middle volume) is genuinely about the sorts of things that most first volumes only pretend to be about. It's about Asher settling in to the court in Dorana, it's about Danthe getting to grips with her role as his guide and guardian. It's about Gar finding his position in the royal family. These things aren't placeholders before the real action, they're the actual plot of the first book. In the last few chapters of book one everything turns on a knife edge, and it seems likely that book two will focus a lot more on war and death and prophecy but it will have the massive advantage of also being about characters I give a crap about, which is something not many fantasy series can boast these days.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 10:24 on 2009-06-30
Isn't this another Solaris publication? At this rate they'll actually make up for having published more of Brian Lumley's Necroscope sequels.
Niall at 12:25 on 2009-06-30
No, this one's Orbit.
Arthur B at 13:14 on 2009-06-30
Ah, I must have been thinking of the cover of the Summoner, which seems to be based on the same conceit.
Wardog at 09:26 on 2009-07-01
Well it's got practically the same cover =P at 11:08 on 2009-07-05
A series of books, written by a man, which is situated in a War situation (with lots of battles), which is mainly about the relationship between two male, heterosexual friends? Try the 'Master and Commander' series by Patrick O'Brian. It isn't fantasy, though, but historical fiction, situated (mostly) at sea on a British warship during the Napoleonic wars. It takes awhile to get into the mode of speech but then it's positively addictive.
Dan H at 14:44 on 2009-07-05
I'm sure there's a lot of guys writing books that focus on relationships outside the fantasy genre, and as far as I can tell the whole homosocial bonding thing is a big part of military-historical stuff. It's just that most fantasy writers tend to start their story ideas with "there's this world where" rather than "there's this guy who".
Arthur B at 15:27 on 2009-07-05
I'm sure there's a lot of guys writing books that focus on relationships outside the fantasy genre, and as far as I can tell the whole homosocial bonding thing is a big part of military-historical stuff.

It's a big deal in some military fantasy and military SF as well, especially when the authors are significantly influenced by military historical stuff. The Gaunt's Ghosts series springs to mind, as does the Black Company. Then again, neither series is about a specific friendship between men, though such friendships are abundant in both.
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2009-07-06
It may come as a surprise to some Ferretbrain readers to learn that I actually don't read all that much. Unlike our esteemed editor, whose to-read pile is taller than she is, or Arthur, who chews through books like some sort of highly efficient book-chewing device, I read rarely and sporadically.
Now who does that remind me of? In my article I mentioned Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. I picked that up last September, and I've still got over 50 pages to go. If it weren't for books on audiocassette, I'd probably go mad.

Y'know, my family didn't really take to The Magician's Guild. I had to stop reading somewhere before the second half of the book started, and even I don't feel any great compunction to pick it back up.

But damn if that doesn't sound awesome (and not a little like a plot summary of one of my books - if I ever get around to writing them - beginning, character interaction, character interaction, more character interactions, oh yeah, villain, climax, the end).

By the way, you refer to the book as "The Awakened Mage" at one point. Is the perhaps the second book?
Robinson L at 00:15 on 2010-12-31
I just finished The Awakened Mage a couple of days ago and on the whole, I found it not-quite-as-good as The Innocent Mage. The great plotting and character stuff is all there as before but ... there are a few things that bother me. I feel like Miller wasn't quite as meticulous with the second book as she was with the first; Rafel in particular dropped in out of nowhere, and from there on served as a pretty transparent plot device. Some parts of the book, especially those concerning Rafel, also strike me as symptomatic of reverse Jesus syndrome.

The morality in The Awakened Mage also seems a lot more black-and-white than in the first book, which I think is a shame, as one of my favorite things about The Innocent Mage was how you could sympathize with every character, no matter how horrible, even the villain a little. Whereas here, Miller writes of Morg and Willer as generically evil, and sort-of Conroyd Jarralt, as well. She's also incredibly vindictive towards Willer especially, which I find disappointing in a writer who at first seemed to be above the tired old good-evil binary.

The climax was ... serviceable. It wasn't actively bad (far from it), just not as good as I was expecting from the buildup. *sigh*, alas.

Interestingly enough, whilst browsing my local bookseller's the other day I discovered there's a sequel duology, The Prodigal Mage and The Reluctant Mage, I think. I shall have to read them some time, but not until I've had a good long break.
Dan H at 01:47 on 2010-12-31
I read Awakened Mage shortly after writing this review, and I remember being mildly disappointed, in that it wound up being a bit more about the Big Magic War and a bit less about the funky character stuff.

I vaguely remember enjoying it though (truth be told, part of the reason I review books is so that I can remember what they were like six months later). at 16:41 on 2011-02-26
Of course I'm sure there are also female writers out there
working on tortuously long series about War and Betrayal, and I'm sure there's
men out there writing taught character-driven fantasy (although so far I haven't
found any).

May I recommend, then, the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, a series which is sort of steampunk-ish and which, despite being six books long with a seventh on the way, has characters who stack up against any to be found in any work by Karen Miller or Robin Hobb (they being the only character driven fantasy authors I've read).

If anyone else here has read these brilliant books, do you agree with me?
Dan H at 23:33 on 2011-02-26
I've got to admit to having got about halfway through the first book and not really liking it that much.

Then again, I think I was a bit prejudiced against Adrian Tchaikovsky because he was vaguely connected to Oxford and so quite a lot of people I sort of knew were all "zomg I TOTALLY know this guy and he is a TOTALLY AMAZING writer" and that sort of put me off him before I started.
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