In this prequel to the popular Black Magician trilogy (The High Lord, 2003, etc.), two young women on opposite sides of a war discover their life’s work.
Tessia has just begun her apprenticeship with a master magician when her country, Kyralia, is invaded by renegade magicians from neighboring Sachaka. Meanwhile, Stara, a half-Sachakan brought up in liberal Elyne, is shocked by the extremely limited role that women play in her father’s society. As Tessia discovers hitherto unknown methods of healing with magic, magicians in the Kyralian army seek new ways to defeat the Sachakans, eventually utilizing tactics as ethically questionable as those of their invaders. Meanwhile, Stara looks for a way to escape her restrictive life and rescue those who suffer worse fates. While the story of young women seeking independence and careers in a man’s world remains an appealing fantasy trope, especially for those who haven’t encountered it before, this is a less-than-stellar example of the genre. Canavan is of the tell-not-show school, and the social messages she’s embedded in the plot are less than subtly expressed. (Slavery, homophobia, misogyny and excessive ambition are Bad.) She attempts to underscore her points with several brutal incidents, but she undercuts her arguments instead by flinching at their implications and letting the worst parts occur discreetly offstage. This tendency is particularly noticeable toward the end, as the book rushes toward an entirely too abrupt conclusion.
Unpolished, unsophisticated, unsatisfying—and unlikely to deter Canavan’s fans.