Review of A Blight of Mages by

Book cover for A Blight of Mages

I’ve never really considered what the collective noun would be for a group of mages (coven might work, but it has more specific connotations than just a gathering). Blight is probably as good as any. The mages of Dorana certainly seem to fit the description. Never have I met such a pack of whiny and entitled people. I was happy to see their country destroyed.

Yes, it is this fury that Karen Miller has inspired in me with A Blight of Mages. Barl Lindin is an unranked mage (she’s not good enough to sit with the cool kids and go to Hogwarts). She is stuck toiling in obscurity, building fantastic clocks under the watchful stink-eye of an artisan of mediocre skill and character. She itches only for a chance to prove herself and be admited to the College of Mages, where she feels that she can learn and be just as good as any mage of rank. Silly Barl doesn’t understand that the world is ranged against her because she lacks both money and family and hence lacks power. It doesn’t matter how much she whines or stamps her feet; she is doomed to a mundane life of work until she dies.

Setting plot aside for a moment, I just have to remark on how much I enjoyed Miller’s depiction of a mage-dominated society plagued with the same problems of class and power relations that our non-mage–dominated societies here on Earth have. (At least, I think our societies aren’t dominated by mages. Huh. That might explain things.) At the pinnacle are the First Families, the ones lucky enough to be born into old money and power. Below them are the majority of Dorana’s population: unranked mages of various levels of skill. Miller weaves magic throughout all of Doranen society, as demonstrated in detail at the beginning when we get to watch Barl make clocks. At the very bottom of the social hierarchy are the unlucky numpties like Rumm who don’t have much magical affinity at all. These muggles get to spend their lives as servants to the mages. And Barl, though she’s nice enough to them, reveals her own position of privilege through her relative insensitivity towards their inequity.

I don’t like Barl that much. Fortunately this appears to be intentional on Miller’s part, for she writes Barl as a very unlikable person: arrogant with a capital “A”, Barl wastes no time informing everyone in earshot that she is Awesome and Amazing and is totally better than Artisan Arndel, who is—I have it on good authority from her—a poopyface. She single-handedly delivers the bestest, most amazingest clock for Lady Grue (who does not live in caves, despite what her name might suggest). She single-handedly saves the artisanry from nigh-certain disaster at the hands of an incompetent fellow mage, though of course with no evidence of the impending disaster remaining, we just have to take her word for it. Barl has all the makings of a Mary Sue … except that, in the grand scheme, she is actually really bad at anything not directly related to mageworking.

Seriously, Barl is a trainwreck through this entire book. From the first page to the last, she pisses off, to various degrees, every single person she meets. Fortunately, Remmie is related to her, so he forgives her (repeatedly). And Morgan … well, he’s Morgan. He saves Barl only to succumb to the siren song that is their mageworking combined. And so they proceed down the direst road of good intentions that I have seen in a long time.

Morgan’s character development as a tragic hero is delicious. At the start of the book, he is little more than your generic rich heir. He courts a lady mage of rank with all the enthusiasm one would expect from a man being pushed into marriage by an ailing, misogynistic crust of father. (Morgan’s daddy issues are later cited by a few other characters as contributing factors to his skewed view of the world, and I’m inclined to agree.) As the story continues, and particularly once Morgan meets Barl and they start cooking with azafris, he grows more of a spine. But that’s not a good thing.

Miller manages to pull of a twist of situational irony that is so clichéd and predictable it should fall flat—but it works. And it works, at least for me, because of the thick and reassuring waves of schadenfreude that wash over me as I watch Dorana crumble. The reactions of the other mages to the nascent catastrophe are reminiscient of global warming deniers. (As much as I like Morgan’s character development, plenty of the secondary characters, particularly antagonists like Sallis and Morgan’s father, are stubbornly one-dimensional in their moustache-twisting commitment to being Bad People.)

So Dorana falls apart, and it’s actually all Morgan and Barl’s fault, even though they were trying to prevent this very thing from happening. Surprise! Except it’s not a surprise to the reader, because we’ve seen this before. Miller knows this, so rather than standing awkwardly around and trying to extract further plaudits, she swiftly moves the book on to the most satisfying part: an extended epilogue that sets the stage for the main part of this series, which had already been published.

After Morgan descends into madness, Barl and the surviving Doranen mages become refugees. They flee to Lur, which by all accounts is a pretty desolate place. Mountains won’t stand in Morgan’s way, though, so Barl has to work one last feat of magic to cut Lur off from the rest of the world and isolate the Doranens and Olken for as long as possible.

On a thematic level, it’s very interesting how Miller has Barl repeat her earlier mistakes rather than learn from them. Once again, Barl shoulders all the responsibility—that arrogance making it impossible for her to admit that someone else could do it—for “saving” people. She has a cross to bear, and she’s none too reluctant to make sure everyon knows she is bearing it for them. I suppose I’ll have to wait until I read the next book to find out what comes of the walled-up refugees. For now, though, I just enjoyed watching the disasters come one after the other, escalating until, finally, all of society crumbles.

Well, Barl gets her wish after all. All of Dorana’s mages are equally screwed. (Or dead.)

A Blight of Mages makes me think back to the good ol’ days of my youth when I was curled up with the larger instalments of Modesitt’s Recluce saga. This book has the same feel of scope and intricate attention to the harmony between magic and the world around us. I suspect that, had I read it back then, I would have found it just as influential as I did Modesitt. As it is, like with Modesitt’s work now, I can see the cracks in the brickwork. It’s not a perfect book—it’s a little long, a little repetitive at times in its insistence on characters endlessly dancing around issues instead of doing things about them. But, as my flippant commentary above hopefully communicates, the book remains extremely entertaining. Despite its length, there was never a point where I found myself putting it down and wanting to walk away: I just wanted to see what fool thing Barl or Morgan might do next.

So far, this world is far cooler than the Godspeaker trilogy, and I look forward to reading the rest of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker books.

Engagement

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