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The Awakened Mage cover

It's nice to be right sometimes. A couple of months ago, I reviewed The Innocent Mage, the debut novel by Australian writer Karen Miller. It was a magic-heavy, family-friendly fantasy, which, though not threatening to set the world alight, was a good read all the same. The characterisation was strong and the world building was believable (albeit slightly on the sparse side). Its major weakness, I said at the time, was that its lack of a unifying threat or villain for most of the novel left some of the middle section lacking in focus. I predicted, however, that its sequel would be something worth reading.

And now here it is—The Awakened Mage—lovingly produced by Orbit in time for the launch of its American imprint. Judging by the quality of work that's been thrown at the thing—gorgeous front cover and crisply edited text throughout—Orbit clearly has high hopes riding on this series, following the high sales of its predecessor in the UK.

The story picks up just moments after the climax of The Innocent Mage, with the Royal Family of Lur hurtling to their deaths and the evil wizard Morg in possession of Court Magician Durm. After 600 years of banishment, all Morg wants is to see the collapse of the magical Wall that has kept him at bay for so long. However, thanks to the ancient enchantments that have been weaved against him, he is forced to take a more circumspect route to achieving his goals. At the end of The Innocent Mage, we saw Morg bestow a corrupted form of magic upon the previously magicless Prince Gar in the hopes of using the Prince to collapse the Wall for him. Now, with the rest of his family dead, Prince Gar has no choice but to act as the new Weather Worker of Lur—a sacred position that involves weaving the Weather Magic that maintains the Wall—little realising that this is precisely what Morg wants in order to see his evil plans come to fruition.

The only thing that has a chance of upsetting Morg's plans is the presence of Gar's only friend, the Olken fisherman, Asher. A brilliantly realised character, Asher once again steals the show as the Prince's gruff, crudely spoken counterpoint. Over the course of the first book, we saw Asher rise up from a simple stable hand to the position of Chief Olken Administrator—one of the most important roles in the kingdom—but now an even greater responsibility will fall to him, one that has been prophesied since the very founding of the Wall. To the ignorance of everyone, especially Asher, he is the Innocent Mage, a man whom legend says will stop Morg with the help of the forbidden magic within him. When people start questioning Prince Gar's credentials for the throne—when he starts losing his magic once again and the Wall shows signs of weakening—Asher is forced to take on responsibilities that will have lasting repercussions throughout the world. Though it is expressly forbidden by all the laws of the land, he starts to wield the Weather Magic himself.

Subtle fantasy this is not. Miller's world of Lur is a simple, genre-friendly place of good versus evil, where the good guys are easy to like and the villains go around sneering. The story, too, often gave me a strange feeling of déjà vu. For example, I couldn't help thinking of Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy whenever I came across references to forbidden magic, or of a ruling class of magicians that forbid most of the populace from wielding magic. In fact, there are a number of parallels between this series and Hobb's masterpiece. Both have a form of high magic that is only accessible by a limited number of the population (most strongly represented among the royal family). Both have a lower, more natural form of magic that is seen as an abomination by most of the populace (in Hobb's case, this is the wit-beast magic; in Miller's case, it's the fact that Asher, an Olken, would dare to use magic in the first place, but it serves the same narrative purpose). In both cases, the hero starts using the forbidden magic, until the use is discovered by his enemies. Both heroes are locked up and sentenced to death for their crimes only to be saved at the last second by their friends. And so on ...

In many ways, then, The Awakened Mage can be seen as a copy of much that has gone before. However, it's what Miller does with these traditional tropes that makes this series more than just a re-hash.

Her Weather Magic, for example, is a truly inspired idea that comes to the fore in this book. The Weather Worker of Lur is a sacred position, vital for sustaining the Wall. And yet, using the Weather Magic causes tremendous suffering—and eventual death. This dilemma serves as the basis for many of the darker moments in the novel, as the characters are forced to make difficult decisions regarding where their loyalties lie.

The writhing clouds above the map billowed outwards to cover the entire recreation of Lur. Tiny forks of lightning flickered in their depths, to be echoed a heartbeat later in the clouds above the Chamber and City. Thunder rumbled, inside and out.

Blue light like little fingers of flame danced the length of Gar's body. Unravelled his disciplined hair and whipped it round his face as though the long blond strands were alive and in torment.

At its raging peak, the power ignited into a wild blue firestorm, roaring and crackling and feeding on itself, with Gar at its greedy heart. Blood burst from his eyes, from his nose, his ears, his mouth and his whole body flailed and shook. He opened his mouth and screamed like a man on fire. Horrified, Asher started forwards then stopped, indecision a knife at his throat. (p.135)

This friendship between Asher and Prince Gar is once again one of the book's real strengths. When Morg finally re-appears (after spending much of the book in a coma), and things start to go wrong very quickly, it is this friendship that is central to the novel, turning an otherwise bog-standard fantasy yarn into something far more special. It is a joy to read these moments.

As should already be apparent, however, the book has its flaws. One could easily point to the two-dimensional nature of the villains, or the way that the entire third act is crammed into just 50 pages of text, giving a very rushed feel to the climax. But for me, the thing that almost ruined the novel completely was the subplot: the love story between Asher and Jervale's Heir, the whiney, condescending bookseller, Daphne.

Now, I realise that singling out a character on whom to pin the faults of a novel is hardly fair. After all, there are always characters we like or dislike more than others in any book. And yes, so her dialogue reads like a bad script from a soap opera: "Wait, wait. I'm sorry. Don't go. Not until you have to. I didn't mean to nag. It's just—I worry about you." (p. 262). And yes, so she putters about for most of the novel whining either about how she's let everyone down—"I handled that badly. I handled it all badly. I've no business being part of the Circle. Prophesy is falling to pieces and it's all my fault!" (p. 416)—or about how she's not as important as she feels she should be: "'No?' she echoed, and felt a flooding rage. 'I am Jervale's Heir! You don't say "no" to me, old woman!'" (p. 485).

But these things don't make a character bad. The reason Daphne (and I say this without any hyperbole) almost single-handedly ruins the novel, is because she gets in the way of a love story that already existed—a love story we were already deeply invested in and which underpinned the entire subtext of the novel—the friendship between Asher and Prince Gar. As I've already mentioned, their relationship is the sole reason the book is as good as it is. It centres everything and adds weight to the events in the story. Daphne disrupts this balance, however—

Falling breathless into each other's arms, they let pleasure have its way with them. Afterwards, he slept, and she sat up in the bed and watched him, marvelling. Eventually she drifted into a dozing sleep and woke only when something cold and feather-light kissed her on the cheek.

It was snowing. (p. 339)

—and the story takes a rapid nose-dive.

Fortunately (and I'm desperately trying to avoid spoilers here), Miller seems to realise her mistake and somewhere in the midst of the chaotic final 50 pages, Daphne is conveniently written out of the way while Asher is left to get on with being a hero. He does a good job of it too, but then that was never in doubt. It's that sort of novel.

So in the end, The Awakened Mage doesn't quite live up to the promise shown by its prequel, and the way it rushes things towards the end does feel slightly incongruous, especially when compared to its early potential (there was easily enough material here for a third book). It's not deep, it's not clever, and it woefully misses the mark at times (Daphne, I'm looking at you again) but there is something unashamedly enjoyable about this novel; an escapist frivolity that whiles the hours away and refuses to let you go. Those 700 pages fly by, and you come out at the end feeling invigorated and childishly happy inside.

Whether Orbit was right to pin its hopes of cracking the US market with this series remains to be seen, but its success this side of the pond seems assured.

R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life.

R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life.
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