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.