Wednesday 29 October 2008

Karen Miller: The Innocent Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker Book 1) (2005)

Published: Orbit, 2007

When Asher heads for the city of Dorana to make his fortune, he is apparently like many others. But there the Circle is waiting for him, as they and their ancestors have been for centuries. For their prophets tell them that Asher is the Innocent Mage of the magic-less Olken race, herald of the Final Days. They cannot inform Asher of his destiny before the right moment, or even tell him that he can work magic (hence "Innocent"), so they need to manipulate his life into the path they want him to follow. Asher's own talents and their work mean that he is appointed to the royal stables on his first day in Dorana, and soon afterwards he is asked by Prince Gar to act as his advisor on Olken matters.

The Innocent Mage, as the summary probably suggests, is not groundbreaking, innovative fantasy. The plot elements - young man marked out by prophecy especially - can be seen in many works of the genre, from the well loved (David Eddings' Belgariad) to the unbearable (the truly awful recent TV series Merlin). Here, Miller's take on the standard ideas of the genre works well, partly because of the character of Asher. Asher comes from a fisher family, one of the very small section of the population who go ouut beyond the weather magic controlled by the royal family that covers the land. This means that his background is tough, something which is reinforced by the northern English dialect he speaks, a useful trick from Miller, using a familiar stereotype from the real world to help the reader understand her fictional one. His usefulness to Prince Gar is that Asher has a straightforward attitude, and refuses to be another royal today. This is not always welcome to the prince, and the abrasiveness of their relationship is the backbone of the novel, and provides a great deal of humour. And it means that the characters are well enough drawn and familiar to the reader for them to be cared about when things get darker towards the end of The Innocent Mage (and then draw the reader on to the concluding The Awakened Mage).

Fantasy as a genre is still generally filled with characters from the nobility, one of the traits derived from medieval literature via the novels of William Morris. Even where peasants and other lower class characters appear, of minor importance or there with humorous intent, particularly when they use dialect, or all three (David Eddings' embarrassing yokels being a case in point). (The reality of medieval Europe, with limited travel, would have been that local dialects and accents would have been strong and verging on the mutually incomprehensible.) Asher isn't like this; he is a much more rounded character, important to the plot, and the humour comes from his relationship with the prince not from making fun of a yokel accent.

In terms of marketing, there is something extremely unusual about The Innocent Mage: this edition is completely free of endorsements and review quotations. Any fantasy novel, no matter how poor, seems to be able to find some writer willing to imply it is the most important work in the genre since The Lord of the Rings; I suspect that few readers pay much attention to them any more. So this could hardly be because the publishers could find no one to write something nice about the novel (it is better written than many that are covered in endorsements), and must be a deliberate marketing ploy. I can't quite see where it's trying to go, though.

The Innocent Mage is not a classic, not innovative, but better-than-most genre fantasy.