Most of my oomph has been directed into Amity v1.5 of late so I let this post for Magebane by Lee Arthur Chase slip by a little bit. But that let the story marinate in my head for a while and I’ve come to a significant conclusion about it since I finished reading the book. So let’s start with the back of the book proper fast because that’s part of my point.
The Kingdom of Evrenfels is the last bastion of magic in the world, cut off from the outside by the Great Barrier thought which magic cannot penetrate.
For centuries, the MageLords have ruled their kingdom with an iron hand, while beyond the Barrier both magic and the MageLords have faded into an almost forgotten myth, replaced by low-level technology. Now all that is about to change, for one mad, Lord Falk, the Minister of Public Safety – the most powerful of the MageLords – has plans to assassinate the king and his heir, to break down the Barrier and conquer the lands beyond.
All it will take is the lives of two innocents, Prince Karl and Falk’s own ward, a girl named Brenna – a small sacrifice, to Lord Falk’s way of thinking. One is the heir and the other is the legendary Magebane, anathema to all magic.
But there is one thing Lord Falk hasn’t foreseen, one thing that could unbalance all of his plans – the unexpected arrival of a young man whose airship suddenly comes sailing over the top of the Great Barrier.
So take all that and combine it with the cover art. It’s purples and greys showing said airship flying over a city. What does this sound like? I grabbed this because I read that as steampunk with a little bit of magic mixed in. Yay genre blending, I enjoy that stuff. And it sounds like we’ve got a couple of kids, with a third one showing up, fighting against a straight up Bad Guy and the world will end up a better place and whatnot.
Cool, I’m in. Let’s go.
Except that’s not what I got.
Now, the airship on the cover got me. See an airship and now everyone automatically thinks STEAMPUNK in giant letters. Rather than steampunk with magic flavoring, it was proper fantasy with a sprinkling of technology. It’s got all the trappings and tropes of a more traditional high fantasy. Anton (the kid from outside the wall with the airship) can just be labeled “Outsider” and we can stop there. In terms of the narrative, it really doesn’t matter what kind of outside world he comes from, just that it’s different. Frankly, I don’t think the story would have been much different if Outside was a world ruled by sentient lizards or the slightly steampunk one that we got. In terms of writing style, this also fit in with a trope I consider classic high fantasy, multiple POVs. I know it’s not exclusive to high fantasy, but I’ve always found it much more common to the fantasy books from the 80s and 90s I read as a kid. This book has seven POVs it bounces around. It’s not quite GRRM, but it’s still much more than usual. It never becomes a distraction, though, because I think the author handles it well.
So we’ve got Karl, Brenna and Anton, they’re our crew from the back of the book. We’ve also got Falk. Good. I like getting into the antagonist’s head. That usually makes him a much more interesting character. And we’ve also got Mother Northwind a healer and master of ‘soft magic’, Davydd Verdsmitt, a commoner playwright, and First Mage Tagaza, Karl’s teacher and head of the scholarly mages. Wait what? Where’d these other people come from? That’s what I thought too.
Karl, Brenna and Anton do their thing of “Let’s fight against the Bad Guy!” Frankly, I’m surprised the book wasn’t marketed as YA since anything featuring protags under 20 gets that rubber stamp regardless of how it reads. (Railsea anyone? Zoe’s Tale? About teenagers but they’re not written any different than any ‘regular’ SF I’ve read)
But you couldn’t market it as YA really, because Magebane isn’t actually about Karl, Brenna and Anton. Oh they’re in it and they do things, plenty of things, but all of it is reactionary until the last quarter of the book. Even then, I don’t think Brenna takes any initiative more than twice in the book. Karl and Anton do a bit more than that and there is a very forced love triangle near the end. Seriously, love triangles need to be set up well before the last twenty pages of the book. I get in a book with seven tangents, it takes a while for them to all cross in the right places, but it was so late in the book it felt stilted. Regardless of awkward teenager emotions, the three of them are all pawns in an extremely Machiavellian game being played by the other four characters trying to bring down the Barrier for various reasons.
I got through Magebane because the non Karl-Brenna-Anton tangents were fascinating from both a narrative and technical standpoint. Falk, Northwind, Verdsmitt and Tagaza are all playing this crazy chess game screwing around with the very magical foundation of their society. There’s rebellion and spies and backstabbing and double backstabbing. It pulled me along because I constantly wanted to know how they were going to twist the noose next, who was in the noose and how they were going to get out of the other guys noose all at the same time. From a technical standpoint, multiple times I stepped back and thought “Holy crap this must have been hard for the author to pull off.”
The Machiavellian Quartet kept me guessing constantly. The miscellaneous teenagers were completely predictable and one dimensional.
I think this bothered me because of where I set my expectations when I started in on the book. Sitting on the bookshelf, I was presented with a lens to read this book through. The cover and back of the book blurb had me geared up for something that wasn’t what I felt like I got. It never even hinted at the parts of the book that I liked. And even the positive parts were shrouded by my soured expectations while I was reading it. Because I was looking for the novel to reach a certain point, I think I missed out on some of the enjoyment I could have otherwise gotten out of the Machiavellian Quartet.
Ultimately, I would have loved a shorter book that was just the Machiavellian maneuverings of Falk, Northwind, Verdsmitt and Tagaza. But that’s my taste tempered with a boredom over the tropes of traditional fantasy which was the Karl-Brenna-Anton arc. Not everyone has that “Seen this soooo many times” as I do, it’s completely based off my past reading experiences. I think that I would have liked the teenager tangents a lot more if the book was properly … marketed, for lack of a better term. I get that thirty odd layers of backstabbing is a hard sell in just a couple paragraphs, but try. I think that if I had been given the proper set of expectations with Magebane, it would have gone from an alright book to a good book.