For a book called The Innocent Mage, set in a land protected by a magical barrier, where the practising of magic is a capital offense for the Olken and a birthright for the Doranen, not a lot of magic actually happens in this book. Karen Miller dangles the potential for magic like a carrot before whacking the reader with the stick of scenery-chewing dialogue. While there is plenty to enjoy about the slow-simmer of worldbuilding in which Miller engages here, some of the same decisions that make Miller’s world of Lur so interesting also make for a duller read.
Asher, a lowly fisherman, stumbles his way into the employ of Prince Gar (whose name either sounds like a Klingon or someone trying to clear their throat of phlegm—take your pick). Turns out this is part of a prophecy, though (not a spoiler, it’s like in the second chapter) in which Asher is going to save Lur from the destruction of its magical barrier, but probably at the cost of his life. Good for the kingdom, not so much for him. Then again, Miller goes out of the way to make Asher into an arrogant prickly pear of a jumped-up peasant, so why should we care about what happens to him?
It’s actually remarkable, this penchant Miller has for unlikable main characters. First Hekat (who, really, is a type of distilled evil) from Hammer of God, then Barl (who is more annoying than evil), and now Asher. I applaud her willingness to write characters that readers have little choice but to dislike. And it’s nice to watch Asher mellow (a little) over the course of the book. However, reaching that stage requires one first not to roll one’s eyes too much at the cliched crutch of prophecy jumping up Asher from fisherman to prince’s assistant. I kept waiting for Asher’s fairy godmother to remind him that he has to leave the ball before the stroke of midnight.
Before I talk about problems with prophecy, however, I’d like to continue talking about character. There is something about Miller’s characterization that distracts me. At first I wanted to call it "one-note", but that isn’t accurate. Plenty of her characters change and reveal different sides throughout the book—Asher and Gar are the two most notable examples, but even the minor characters like Darran get moments of lucid two-dimensionality. No, I think my issue is with the portrayal of the antagonists, from Morg/Durm to the pint-sized pest in Fane to the blithering Jarralt. Miller’s villains tend to be over-the-top and moustache twirling. There is nothing subtle about them, and their performances tend to be repetitive. Morg’s refrain of "bitch, slut, treacherous whore," as he continues to obsess over Barl, definitely reminds us of how twisted he has become, but it also gets old after the tenth time. Similarly, while I find Fane’s personality plenty believable, she also tends to be melodramatic at the best of times.
This melodrama extends to the plot and dialogue as well. The Innocent Mage is a long book, and it seems unnecessarily so considering how little actually happens. Rather, Miller fills pages with repetitive dialogue. Characters spend a lot of time talking about the same things over and over. They discuss, then remind each other of these discussions, then maybe revisit the discussions. There are lots of hypotheticals. Some of it is interesting, most of it isn’t, and little enough of it actually involves the cool sigil magic Miller uses in A Blight of Mages. And, as with the character issue, it puzzles me, because when Miller takes off the brakes and actually makes things happen, the book jumps into a pleasant gear that both entertains as it passes the time in a way that her dialogue just can’t match.
The more I read of her work—and I’ve read a lot more of Miller’s novels in a shorter span of time than I have many other, probably better writers—the more it seems like she favours structure and story over specifics. There’s no denying that she has a rich imagination as well as the ability to put that imagination on paper. Lur, the Olken, the Doranen, and their curious society are all interesting set pieces in an original fantasy world. I like how Miller portrays the uneasy dynamic between the mundane Olken, who are usually servants and merchants, and the arcane Doranen, who are the ruling class. And this is where her pairing of Asher and Gar gets interesting. Similarly, while Morg’s takeover of Durm is a predictable outcome of his poking his head beyond the Wall, it’s also deliciously well done and leads to a climactic twist that I really didn’t see coming (because I wanted a slightly different setup for the second book, but oh well).
Morg’s involvement is interesting in light of the prophecy that casts Asher as the Innocent Mage. To what extent does the prophecy anticipate Morg’s return? I assume it does, in the same way that Barl anticipated the possibility of Morg gaining access to the Weather Orb. I’m a bit wary of prophecy as a plot device these days. Played straight it robs much of the meaning from a character’s actions; subverted, it’s equally predictable as a rejection of the notion of fate and destiny. Playing with prophecy is like playing with fire (for both writer and characters). And I’m not really inclined to be charitable in this particular case, because Dathne the prophet is pretty useless. She exists solely to worry and remind us that the prophecy exists. Maybe Miller puts her to better use in the second book (in fact, I’d bet on it), but for The Innocent Mage she is essentially a plot device.
The Innocent Mage reminds me a lot of The Riven Kingdom. It shares the same slow pacing and tendency for redundant dialogue. It also has an interesting society and a clear conflict. I can’t help but be harsh in my critique here, because this is a book that lacks polish—at the same time, I should also point out that I read this long book fairly quickly, during a busy work week, because I couldn’t put it down. So despite my criticisms, this remains an intensely involved book. It is a reminder that there is a difference between quality and enjoyment. I don’t think The Innocent Mage stands out for me as a fantasy book of especial quality or imagination. But it was certainly a fantasy book that I enjoyed. Miller’s style might not always appeal to my particular sensibilities, but her story remains, at is core, interesting and powerful. Good storytelling always wins out in the end.