MageBorn by Stephen Aryan

Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of epic fantasy
★    ★    ★    ★   

Mage Born is the first epic fantasy I’ve really enjoyed in a long, long time.

Plotting surrounds a group of people connected to the Red Tower, a center of learning and networking for mages, re-established after an international war caused by rogue magicians. Magic users had historically been viewed with suspicion and fear, so the Red Tower sought to identify and teach young practitioners. However, decades-long fear and bias are hard to erase, and a movement to ban magic seems to be growing (as I write this, I find myself pondering parallels in the US political climate).

“Many of the older students who’d learned to conceal their magic were taught how to stay in control, to keep themselves safe and prevent accidents in their communities. Thhey were often middle-aged men and women, approached with discretion, so as not to alert their friends and neighbours. Most had no desire to learn more, didn’t want to become a Battlemage and wanted nothing to do with the Red Tower. These days it was becoming too dangerous with so much anti-magic sentiment.”

Narratives include Habreel and Akosh, uneasy allies working to ban magic-use; Munroe, a woman with a troublesome past who has become an exceedingly strong sorcerer; her husband, Choss, who trains young students in combat; Tianne and Wren, young women who have just come to the Red Tower to learn how to develop and control their abilities; Tammy, Guardian of the Peace; and a few other rare perspectives. The multitude of viewpoints are woven together around two main plots: the atmosphere in the Red Tower for the new students, and the attempt to protect magic users in the community while Habreel works against them. Additionally, Tammy is tasked with an old murder case–discovering who killed her husband so many years ago. At times, I was not sure how all the dual stories would connect, but they eventually dovetailed. There’s a level of danger in the Tower that seems inappropriate for an enlightened school setting, although that ends up being intriguingly hinted at the end.

I enjoyed the characterization, wishing only that we spent more time with fewer characters, as I wanted to know more about the school and more about Munroe (it turns out there’s more about Munroe in an earlier trilogy, so back to the series I go). I was fascinated and uncomfortable with Habreel’s sedition, but believed his sincerity in his cause. I loved Munroe’s cocky confidence–that she completely owns and deserves–and Tammy’s understanding of human nature. I also love that Tammy is an older woman who has been through a lot in her life and professional career. Wren and her friend Tianne are members of different ethnic groups, so there’s an added level of complexity there as they seek to integrate into the Tower and their peer group. There was increasing tension as the book progressed, and I found myself trying to read faster. When I finished, I was left with one of those book-hangovers that signal deep involvement in a book.

There are a few challenges for me in the smoothness of the writing, primarily as we shifted viewpoint to viewpoint. I also generally prefer a little more world-building, but I think it was adequate for the story and allowed the author to focus on dialogue and action. However, I can forgive quite a bit, particularly when I realized in retrospect that most of the perspectives were female, and they were just, you know, people. It isn’t even until I’m listing perspectives in my review that I realized how many are female, and how many different roles they fill. Contrast that with my last review in the Night Angel series, Beyond the Shadows, when I realized almost every single woman was defined by her sexuality.

I grew up on fantasy, and if there was one thing I realized early, it was the dearth of people like me. Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad (excepting Polgara), Sword of Shannara (Wren is the only female I remember in the early series, and look how that turned out), The Wheel of Time series (Egwene and her hair-flipping), the Dragonlance chronicles, Robert Lynn Asprin, and don’t get me started on Piers Anthony (who I generally loved): all primarily male characters and women who embody stereotypes. Then there’s the subset of epic fantasy that had a few female characters, but included rape and violence against women (Jennifer Robinson, McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, Thomas Covenant series). I think I had burned out on the genre before people started doing more interesting things with it.

So yes. While there may be issues–I might wish for more vivid writing or more detailed world-building–they are relatively insignificant. Stephen Aryan’s books scratch a decades-old epic itch in a satisfying way. I can’t wait until the next one.


Thank you to Jenni at Orbit and Aryan for an advance copy of this book.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to MageBorn by Stephen Aryan

  1. M. says:

    Great review, Carol, as always. You make me really curious about this series and author. A male author who can write various female POVs in epic fantasy is rare. I didn’t realize how rare because I got into the genre in my late teens. “Fortunately” by then I had had read enough gratuitous sexual violence in fiction to know what to stay away from. *cough* grimdark *cough* Still don’t understand what all the fuss is about, honestly. But I’m very glad the genre is moving away from it.

    • thebookgator says:

      I really enjoyed the last book in his first trilogy (I’ll go back and read the others!). They honestly just felt like… people, which in my mind, is rare. They weren’t all operating in a family-less vacuum either. Even modern books… Sanderson, who is one of the more ‘inclusive’ epic writers generally just has one woman, ditto Scott Lynch, Brett, and Rothfuss. Lawrence–well, you know how I feel about him and Weeks. I’m a definite pass on grimdark, in the sense of needing to include violence and torture, but I’ll grant an exception to Abercrombie.

      • M. says:

        ^^Yes to everything you said. Abercrombie gets points from me too, but only because he’s an engaging storyteller. His depiction of women tho… he’s better than the others, but there’s still room for improvement. I never read past the original trilogy, so I don’t know if he improved or not.

        Depicting women with fully realized lives and relationships, as real people with their own agency, is such an obstacle in this genre, yet it’s such a low bar to pass. *smh* but I’m glad that that’s changing.

        Thanks for stumbling on Stephen Aryan tho. He sounds like a breath of fresh genre air.

      • thebookgator says:

        Oh, you are right on Abercrombie and women, although the fourth book focused on revenge did best for female. It’s at moments like this when I realize that the representation at Hugos and Nebulas is still important.
        I’ll admit I’m a little puzzled by Aryan’s low profile.

      • M. says:

        My guess would be it’s because Aryan writes his stories from multiple women’s POVs, and that just doesn’t appeal to the “target” epic fantasy reading crowd (the ol boys club) as much as, say, blood and gore and instant female refrigeration. Just looking at his book covers, I’m reminded of Anthony Ryan, David Dalglish, and even Brent Weeks, and I have a hard time imagining fans of those guys enjoying Aryan’s style of fanatasy. Just a guess though. But maybe I’m wrong entirely and his books aren’t getting the attention they deserve because of a lack of marketing.

  2. Pingback: In Shades of Grey by Melissa Myers | book reviews forevermore

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