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The Sentinel Mage
Emily Gee
Solaris paperback �7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

This may be the most perfect example of a generic fantasy novel that I have ever read. It is as though the author read a primer on how to write a fantasy series and then followed it to the letter. Nothing has been overlooked. The title is intriguing, the cover art very appealing in its sepia-toned romanticism. It's book one of the Cursed Kingdoms trilogy and there are maps at the front of the novel: a large map of the cursed kingdoms in their entirety (both mainland and several enticing archipelagos from which islanders, who are not quite like the rest of the people, will be able to emerge), and a more detailed map of the two kingdoms that will be under scrutiny in this novel. The packaging is faultless.

The narrative shows a similar attention to constructing perfect fantasy product. Three strands of story are meticulously braided together to produce a carefully balanced story. We have the princely saviour, Harkeld, who hates and fears witchcraft but who unexpectedly possesses magical powers which will be vital in breaking the curse which afflicts the Allied Kingdoms. He will, inevitably, have to rely on a group of mages for his continuing safety. The mages are fire-wielders and shape-shifters, and have sworn to undo the Ivek curse, laid some 300 years earlier. Among them is Innis, still an apprentice but allegedly possessed of spectacular mage powers, far stronger than those of any other mage.

There is also a complex political and palace intrigue, at the centre of which is Harkeld's father, King Esgar of Lunegaard, a man with an eye for territorial expansion, who regards all of his children purely in terms of their usefulness as negotiating pieces. Well aware of Harkeld's destiny, he has long had it in mind to make the prince's hands and blood available to the other kingdoms to destroy the curse, but for a price; and there is nothing to say that Harkeld must be alive at the time. Likewise, Esgar's daughter, Harkeld's sister, Brigitta, is there to be married off to whomsoever Esgar favours, in this instance the brutal Duke Rikard. It is Harkeld's disgust at his father's behaviour which forces him to flee the palace with the mages, albeit reluctantly. With Harkeld gone, Brigitta becomes reliant on Yasma, her maid, and Karel, her armsman, for what limited protection they can afford her, and is in turn concerned for her two young half-brothers, grandsons of King Magnus of Ostgaard, a country ripe for annexation in Esgar's view.

Thirdly, we have Jaum�, a child alone in the world after his father, affected by the curse, murdered the rest of their family. Jaum� is a remarkably bright eight-year-old with an almost preternatural sense of self-preservation. He knows, thanks to the stories he has heard, that he must not drink the water and he also knows that he must leave his village and find refuge elsewhere. Anyone familiar with this style of fantasy will know already that his destiny is in some way entwined with those of the other characters. It remains only to determine the nature of his involvement and how and when their paths will cross.

In all, the narrative hums along, like a particularly well-designed piece of machinery, scrupulously tended to and highly polished, maintaining a brisk pace, discouraging the reader from stopping to take a closer look. It's predictable, yes, but this kind of fantasy novel thrives on understanding how the mechanism works and enjoying the many variations on the familiar theme (rather like reading Agatha Christie, for example), and it can't be denied that Emily Gee has an eye for a spectacular set-piece. On that basis, The Sentinel Mage is an accomplished piece of work. But I have a suspicious mind and I also read rather more slowly than this narrative would like me to. So high a finish makes me think about misdirection and I wonder what it is I am being encouraged to overlook.

And once past the gleaming surface, there are indeed a number of oddities about this novel. Some are straightforward failures of craft, in particular Gee's handling of dramatic tension. It is as though the entire novel is set at medium, no matter what the situation, be it Innis transforming herself into a lion, Duke Rikard raging over some matter or other, or the mage party under attack from soldiers and assassins. However, there are other, more fundamental, issues to be considered.

There is at times a certain lack of invention in the storytelling, most noticeably in the sections involving the mages and Harkeld. This is in stark contrast to the way Gee handles the palace scenes, which seem to show a better grasp of how nobles and servants interact with one another, and where the characters appear, at all levels, to have rather better observed inner lives. It is almost as if Gee is not entirely sure what to do with her characters once they leave the palace, and is not comfortable about the fact that she has created characters with magical powers.

For example, when Harkeld flees the palace, Esgar immediately places a bounty on his head, and the party is tracked by groups of palace soldiers and also by assassins. Their task is to avoid all of these and make their way into Osgaard, where Harkeld hopes to find sanctuary with King Tomas, and then make their way to the first anchor stone. The nature of the assailants changes according to where they are in the journey, but after a while the attacks take on a familiar structure, often with repeated attacks from the same groups of aggressors, and a surprising emphasis on the number of horses that die in each encounter. Similarly, and perhaps because the mages are healers too, the story dwells on injuries suffered and healings performed. Harkeld is badly injured on several occasions and needs to rely on Innis in order to recover.

Innis herself is a puzzle. She supposedly has remarkable powers, hence her place on the expedition although she is still an apprentice, but we have very little sense of her as a character beyond seeing her change shape. It is noticeable too that the other mages are protective of her, and insist that she is very young (at 20 years old), with no indication of why they are so concerned. What is it about mage-hood that we haven't been told?

It is Innis' ability to hold a shape other than her own for much longer than anyone else that leads to the most extraordinary element of this story. The mages decide that Harkeld needs an armsman as a companion to allay his deep suspicions about the witches and Innis and her companions between them impersonate Justen. Mages are forbidden to transform into humans so this already goes against their training (though they are in this instance casually excused because it is for the sake of the curse), but for Innis, who seems to have led a very sheltered life, there is the added problem of having to impersonate a man. Gee is clearly interested in the gender politics of this impersonation, much as she is engaged by the dilemma of Brigitta, who is regularly raped by Rikard as fulfilment of his conjugal rights. However, Gee seems reluctant to dig more deeply into the psychology of Innis' situation, her lack of sexual experience and the nature of her burgeoning emotional bond with Harkeld, instead subsuming it into more healing or else erotic dreams. It's a pity she's chosen to do this because Innis is, as a result, a much more colourless character than she really ought to be.

As carefully crafted fantasy product, I really can't fault this novel. It touches all the required bases perfectly and provides a smooth if undemanding read. Yet when examined more carefully it clearly possesses the potential to be something so much more interesting if only the author were prepared to move beyond the requirements of formula and push harder at the possibilities offered by her scenario. It will undoubtedly be successful as it stands but I could wish that Emily Gee had been willing to take more risks.

The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee



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