Some stories keep you on the edge of your seat with non-stop drama, and some are gentler tales, of people learning about themselves and each other, quietly resolving their problems with thoughtful research or experimentation or negotiation, instead of reaching for the swords every time. This book is in the latter category, which makes it very much my kind of story.
The opening of the book is a nice introduction to the background, one of a basically illiterate population, where both magic and writing are frowned upon. Ailith can read and write, but she has to keep that secret. However, a meeting with a mysterious older man, Malachi, reveals that she has another secret – she is a mage.
Ailith is one of twins, with several other sisters and (maybe?) a brother, too. Her twin is about to be married to a man three times her age, a match arranged by the family and the twin seems to be quite content with that. Ailith, too, has had possible marriages arranged for her, but scared off the suitors by her forthright style, and is resigned to spinsterhood. This is an aspect of the society that absolutely fascinated me. It’s rare these days to find a setting where arranged marriages are calmly accepted as a normal facet of life, yet are not a big plot point. I felt like saying: wait a minute, tell me more about this. How does it actually work? But the story veered off in a different direction, and I never did find out about it. Maybe later in the series.
The magic in this world verges on science. There’s a great deal of herbalism and mixing of minerals to make an amalgam, and the mage then adds just a smidgen of ‘intention’ to turn it into something magical. It’s clear that the author has done her research on herbs and other materials, and if I could have done with less detail, that’s a personal preference, and didn’t impact the story.
Ailith is an interesting character – smart and brave and (frankly) completely reckless sometimes in her willingness to experiment, whether it’s on herself or some other hapless character. I liked that she came from a happy family background, with all the petty little squabbles and differences of any family, but clearly wrapped in affection.
Of the other characters, Leofwin is the most compelling, prowling round his castle at night, obsessively weeding and pruning and tinkering in his garden. I loved his habit of leaping up with a ‘Let’s try it!’ whenever Ailith suggests some particularly outlandish concoction.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I have to congratulate the author on changing the reader’s perceptions of two characters in particular, in very slow, subtle ways. This is difficult to do successfully, and although I think it works better with one character than the other, it’s still very well done.
One aspect that worked less well for me is that Ailith manages to solve all her problems rather too easily. It reduces the tension almost to nothing if, when a crisis arises, she simply decides what particular method is needed, and finds a way to do it. There are no hiccups and nothing goes wrong, everything is resolved quickly and easily. I would have liked a few magical disasters along the way to make me worry for her a bit more.
There is one event in the story which stands out for me. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but Leofwin’s experience in the temple is a brilliant example of an author successfully subverting expectations, while at the same time creating a deeply thought-provoking scenario. I loved this section of the book.
The climax of the story is suitably dramatic, with some unexpected twists and turns. I would have liked a stronger resolution to Malachi’s story, however. He was a major character early on, but his tale trickled away to nothing. I’d have liked more made of Garrick’s father, too. What happened to him should (I thought) have been a momentous event, and given more prominence. And, as mentioned above, I wished I could hear more of Ailith’s twin, and find out whether her marriage was happy or not.
But these are minor points. This was a very enjoyable, well-written read, recommended for fans of quieter, more thoughtful and less action-filled fantasy. Four stars.