David Hair’s first adult novel, Mage’s Blood, does a bit of hand waving. I’ll go into detail about it later, but suffice to say that he doesn’t think very far beyond the snapshot in time that contains his narrative. I’m also a little tired of the female character who sleeps around to gain an illusion of power. Those flaws aside, recognizing them for what they are, Mage’s Blood is one of the better epic fantasy series first installments I’ve read in recent years.
It should be noted that when I refer to the term epic fantasy, I really mean it. Sweeping conflicts, clashes of cultures, political and personal entanglements, rich and in-depth magic, and mighty warriors dot the landscape. There’s even descriptions of food,
. . .they ate a cold meal of dried meat and breads, washed down with a small flask of arak and some water, all from the wagon’s spoils. Tanuva Ankesharan’s best cooking could not match so wondrous a feast as this scavenged meal.
Written in limited third person from multiple points of views, the novel does maintain some notion of good and evil. It walks a fine line though, often refusing to color individuals entirely one or the other. In that sense it’s quintessential modern epic fantasy, but couched in a very expected setting.
Mage’s Blood reimagines the East meets West collision of Islam and Christianty in the early parts of the last millennium. Yuros (the west) and Antiopia (the east) are the two continents of Urte, connected only by the Leviathan Bridge, which emerges from the ocean every 12 years when the Moontide ebbs. Built by Magi, the bridge began as a gateway to trade and cultural exchange. Now, the Rondian Empire, founded by some of those same Magi, has made it an accessory to bloodshed. Believing in their manifest destiny, the Empire crusades against the morally inferior heathens. As the narrative begins, Moontide approaches and a third crusade is in the offing.
Given the tacitly familiar setting, reminiscent of our own history and of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing, it becomes imperative that Hair write compelling characters doing interesting things. He centers the narrative around four primary points of view, Alaron and Elena, blood relatives and Magi both, and Ramita and Kazim, common Antiopians caught up in events too large for their experience. All four are well rendered, but only Elena truly stands out as something different from standard archetypes. She’s a capable woman who’s both physical and feminine, albeit irrevocably broken by the life she’s lived.
Alaron by comparison is standard is as standard does, a put upon youngster learning magic (called the gnosis) and finding his place in the world. It’s a trope, but one I can’t help loving, no matter how often I read it. Hair executes it well, making Alaron’s tale the one I’m most interested in continuing.
Ramita and Kazim fall into a similar trap, exhibiting the reticent broodmare and love spurned barbarian stereotypes. At the outset, the pair are betrothed, but soon find themselves split apart as the crusade precipitates action by powerful forces. Their story line, particularly in the novel’s first half, involves a great deal of travel, necessitating frequent map and name checking to maintain immersion.
Thankfully, Mage’s Blood comes with beautifully illuminated maps, joining the Wheel of Time tradition in printing the map right on the inside cover. Had I been reading the novel electronically I’m certain I would have been frustrated by the need for referencing. In hardcover, it lent the whole experience some nostalgia for the big fat fantasy of my youth. I concede, the map reinforces the notion that here may be an over reliance on naming, undoubtedly to create a sense of wonder in an otherwise vanilla setting, but I’d be hesitant to make the statement without an additional reading.
At the outset of this review, I remarked that Hair does some hand waving and it’s most apparent when looking at that map. His Bridge, which connects two continents that have been separated for thousands of years, creates cognitive dissonance. It’s a wonderful plot device, but necessitates the question, why do these two societies look so similar? Despite being linked for only a hundred years (give or take), they have very little physical, psychological, or even cultural divergence. Antiopia feels like the Middle East and/or India, and Yuros feels like Europe. For comparison’s sake, it’s like Cortez washing up on the beaches of South America and encountering Turks. It makes Mage’s Blood something of an anthropological boondoggle. I recognize it’s a story, and I won’t dwell on it, but it feels like Hair shoehorned in a plot device consequences be damned.
While I might have preferred that aspect to be better thought out, it’s a tiny detail in the larger whole. Hair tells his story with aplomb in a clear and concise prose that won’t remind anyone of the aforementioned Bakker, although in that same vein it lacks the thematic import of Bakker’s work. Hair doles out information wisely, unveiling his twists and turns at the right moment, but never at the expense of his reader.
In a fantasy marketplace that’s soon concluding the iconic Wheel of Time and suffering the long delays of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have a list of authors I can recommend. Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky, Daniel Abraham’s Dagger & Coin, and Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer series, have been some of the names on that list. David Hair has shown me enough in Mage’s Blood to put him alongside those others, albeit on a probational status. I’ll be happy to read the second installment whenever he’s ready for full fledged approval.
As a side note, I think it’s worth pointing out the incredible work from Jo Fletcher Books this year. I’ve read several of them, and every time I’ve been impressed. Not to mention the half dozen they publish that I haven’t had a chance to read yet. As the Brits say, cheers.