The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller
Volume 1 of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology.
Published by Orbit Books, April 2007
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Sometimes there are books that shouldn’t work: books that you know have elements that are predictable and conventional. You know pretty quickly where they are going, why they’re going there and what will happen when they get there. And yet they have a power that keeps the interest when you know that perhaps they shouldn’t. The Innocent Mage was that sort of a book for me.
The set-up is very conventional. In the kingdom of Lur there live two races. The Doranen, magicwielders from a bygone age, hold in thrall the magicless Olken. The plot revolves mainly around the uplifting of Asher, lowly fisherman from the coastal town of Restharven, who leaves his family to make his way forward in life. Unbeknownst to him, Asher is a character of prophecy, one whose future is determined – he will be the Innocent Mage – born to save the world from blood and death. It should therefore be no great surprise when he ends up in the royal city of Dorana, and a chance happening leads him to employment as a stablehand in the royal palace. To fulfil his destiny further, more events lead him to progress up the career ladder, to become the right-hand man to Crown Prince Gar, who, crippled by his lack of magic ability, becomes instead the royal Ambassador of Olken.
For anyone who reads Fantasy, and large quantities at that, the above précis might do little more than create that feeling of deja-vu, if not ennui. However, despite its lengthy pause between its Australian publication (in 2005) and the UK release (in 2007), this book has been exceptionally popular in the UK (reprinted three times in its first year of release) and now, on its US release (both through Orbit), may well do the same. So what is its magic?
Well, there are a lot of traditional Fantasy tropes here, which will clearly tick all the boxes for many. It deals with magic and prophecies, which many readers will want to read through to see their ultimate outcome. It is a tale of rite of passage, quest and destiny, of lowly peasant made good and royal destiny thwarted, of revenge and sacrifice. All the elements of high fantasy are here, written in an entertaining, if rather conventional, style.
There were flaws for me which may, or may not, annoy others: Asher’s dialogue, to reflect his humble origins, would not sound amiss in the UK region of Yorkshire. Regularly the book has Asher understanding nowt (nothing), calling people ‘clever-clogs’ and referring to his father as ‘da’, not to mention has him blurt out sentences such as ‘She be a slumskumbledy wench and no mistake.’ Indeed, the book nearly lost me on the first page with the narrative referencing of one of Asher’s brothers as “Bloody Niko woke cursing if a fly farted.’ Not subtle nor particularly appreciated.
Similarly, though less annoying, are the sacrifices made in order to develop the plot. Asher’s rise to fame and fortune is amazingly quick, even for a 600+ page book. His natural abilities are also clearly to the fore, though to become a master at horse-riding, beating a champion in jousting in an event he barely registered for is a tad overoptimistic.
However, going with the flow and enthusiasm of the plot, I ignored these (for me) lapses in favour of other positives. The characterisation elsewhere is interesting, with jealousy and class envy clearly features, as they are in everyday life. It was pleasing to read of sibling rivalry between Gar and his sister Fane, as well as between Asher and his brothers for a change, rather than brothers and sisters who got on well.
The idea of magic being used to create Barl’s Wall, a shimmering barricade to protect the kingdom from some horrible mistakes of the past was good, though to me rather similar to the Great Wall in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series or Garth Nix’s Sabriel. The use of magic by the royal family to control the weather and maintain their kingdom’s wellbeing was an interesting touch also, I thought. Some of the worldbuilding, though predictably quasi-medieval, was different enough to also pique my interest.
So, despite my concerns, the skill of the writer kept me engaged enough to keep reading. About 100 pages from the end the reappearance of an old adversary who possesses a key character made things appealing. And perhaps most importantly, by the end of 600+ quickly-turning pages, for all its faults, I wanted to read the next book in this duology, The Awakened Mage.
Not clever, not particularly original or uniquely stylish, but written well enough to keep the reader’s interest, this is a book that will create a warm sense of comfort for many Fantasy readers out there who wish to be charmed rather than challenged. As the weather changes and the nights draw in, there’s much to be appreciated here for those who can cope with its limitations.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, October 2007.
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