Wizards and magic have always been staples of the fantasy genre, and rags-to-riches tales of apprentice sorcerers learning their craft at the hands of a wise mentor saturate the fantasy section of many bookstores. It takes something special, then, to lift a novel above the sea of mediocrity, and this debut from Karen Miller does an admirable job at that.
Unlike most of his ilk, the lead character in The Innocent Mage has no idea of his magical prowess. Asher is a straight-talking Olken fisherman who belongs to a race of people who everyone says can't use magic. In the kingdom of Lur, Olken and Doranen have lived together for centuries, but only the latter can wield magic. It has been the job of the Doranen royal family since the time of the great Barl herself to cast the weather spells that give strength to the Wall. Without the Wall, the kingdom would quickly fall. Or so the legends say.
Prince Gar, firstborn child of the king, however, is magicless. Much to the chagrin of his kin, for the first time in generations it must fall to a sibling, his sister Fane, to use the weather magic that staves off the forces of evil. Gar is a popular figure amongst the people, widely regarded as a just and fair leader who cares for those under his command. His failure to use magic, though, is a constant badge of shame, and he looks at his sister with envious eyes.
Into this situation walks Asher, who comes to the royal city at the start of the book to find his fortune. Before long, through a bizarre set of circumstances, he finds himself not only working as the right-hand man of Prince Gar but also acting as the prince's only friend. It’s an awkward situation for him to be in, caught as he is between his rural upbringing and the new life of nobility offered to him. He gets through it by promising himself that the appointment is only temporary. He will work for the prince for a year, earn enough money to buy a boat, and then return home to his father. But is it really so simple? There are those in the city who believe Asher to be the prophesied Innocent Mage, a man who will learn to wield a new kind of magic in time to bring about the Final Days. A man who must remain in total ignorance of his potential if he is to have any chance of success.
This two-part fantasy series should keep fans of Trudi Canavan and Robin Hobb more than happy. Karen Miller’s world of Lur is an expansive, well-drawn, and believable place made all the more accessible by an easygoing prose style that you can’t help but get drawn into. There’s nothing particularly new about her depiction of a prosperous land shielded from evil by magic, but a strong cast of identifiable characters breathes new life into the clichés. Asher, for example, is a great central hero. Naïve and impressionable on his first encounter with high society yet with an unshakable rustic charm, he is a character we can get behind and relate to. It would be easy to get mired down in the deep-lying mistrust between the Doranen and Olken people and the inevitable racism it leans towards, but Miller sidesteps this confidently, never losing sight of what is important—the progression of characters and plot through a scene—even when dealing with such issues. Her confidence in portraying Asher’s transition from simple fisherman to royal clerk is particularly impressive, considering that this is her debut novel. Take this passage for example, in which Asher witnesses Prince Gar at work for the first time:
Inch by inch, the unsmiling form of the prince was revealed. He was draped neck to knee to ankle in a gold and crimson brocade robe. His silver circlet had been replaced by a heavy, plain gold crown. His expression was grave. Thoughtful. He looked . . . older.
The platform stopped a mere whisper above the floor. The prince stepped down and took his seat on the dais. Then he lifted the hammer from its hook and struck the bell three times. The air inside the Hall chimed. Shimmered. Asher felt something cool and invisible dance across his skin. (70-71)
You can probably feel a "but" coming on, and yes, there is one. This book is by no means perfect. Its main problem is that it has difficulty standing on its own. I get the impression that the sequel, The Awakened Mage, will be a brilliant, action-filled romp of magic and self-discovery. Asher will finally discover his full potential, the evil Morg will rampage across the land, and much will hinge on the already fragile friendship between Asher and Prince Gar. You can see from the final chapters of The Innocent Mage how the series is going to shape up, and I have to admit, it's a tantalising prospect.
However, this leaves much of The Innocent Mage feeling like setup. In places it comes across as almost soap opera in its concerns as Miller tries to flesh out what is essentially a prologue to novel length. Asher, being the Innocent Mage, is oblivious to his true nature, so for most of the novel his central dilemma hinges on his indecision about whether he should go back home to his family or stay and continue working for the prince. It's not the most inspiring of character arcs and hardly an earth-shattering concern when you consider the threats that are facing his world (not to mention the fact that his staying is something of a foregone conclusion anyway, since—let's face it—if he leaves, there is no story). Once the situation has been established and the characters are all in play, there's little for any of them to do but sit around twiddling their thumbs until the main villain, Morg, turns up just in time for the sequel. It’s an annoying problem Miller’s made for herself, and it leaves us with a frustratingly directionless middle section. Asher's character arc fades from the forefront (stored to one side until he awakens, no doubt), and even Prince Gar loses his way, becoming bogged down in trivial concerns over the health of his father and how annoying his sister can be. From the confident lawgiver of the earlier sections, he dissolves into something almost petty. When Asher comes to him at the end of his year’s service asking permission to leave, it’s shocking to see how quickly their friendship spins on its head. And not entirely convincing.
One final nudge and the thin strip of ancient gold was perfectly aligned. It clasped his skull tightly. Only his imagination made it heavy. Gar took a step back from the mirror and eyed himself up and down one last time. He looked fine. Better than fine. He looked every inch a prince. Doranen royalty. Keeper of Barl's Law. Defender of the Realm. Morg's Scourge. Pity about the magic, but there it was. You couldn't have everything could you?
Letting his gaze slip sideways, he met Asher's uncertain, reflected eyes. "Change your mind."
Across Asher's face, a skittering of emotions: sorrow, anger, an impatient compassion. "I can't."
And there it was. Final as a door slam. Part friends? Not likely. "You're making me late," he said. "Go downstairs and wait with the others." (382)
Fortunately, the story recovers from this slump. The subplots tie themselves up, Prince Gar and Asher’s friendship is resolved, and finally, the main plot gets back on track. It's something of a relief, to be honest, because when Miller’s writing in full flow, her work is as strong and emotive as anything I’ve read. It's a shame it takes almost three hundred pages for this to happen, but it’s definitely worth sticking around for, if for no other reason than the arrival of the main villain. Morg might have a silly name, but he’s a scene-stealing bad guy with genuine stage presence.
Despite a sagging middle section, then, this novel has a lot going for it. Miller just about gets away with her slipups by writing a straightforward story that doesn't try to be anything more than what it is: a good, solid epic fantasy with its heart in the right place. It'll probably get lost in the stampede of similar novels that appear every year, but for a debut offering, this really isn't that bad. I have high hopes that the sequel, The Awakened Mage, will be a book to get genuinely excited about. Although it won't set the world alight, for a bit of irreverent fun you could do a lot worse than The Innocent Mage.
R. J. Burgess has been freelancing for just over a year now. A prolific reader, he regularly contributes work to the kind people at Tor and Harper Voyager. He currently lives and works in London.