The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller
I’ve been seeing Karen Miller’s novels around since high school. The American covers for her work are all gorgeous and in harmony with each other, and the back covers always sounded interesting–Empress, the Miller novel I really want to read, concerns a slave who manages to claw her way to the top of her desert empire. That sounds awesome. So I when I saw The Innocent Mage forlornly on its side in my local thrift store, I thought I might as well get acquainted with Karen Miller and her work.
In the The Innocent Mage, our hero, Asher, has a very simple dream–leave home and work in the glorious city of Dorana for a year, return in glory and riches to his small fishing community to buy his own boat, take care of his aging father, and one-up his callow brothers. His road to glory seems assured when he’s hired as a stablehand by the Prince himself, Gar. But destiny has much, much more in store for him, and a secret Circle in Dorana is keeping a very close eye on the man Prophecy calls the Innocent Mage, for he is the only man who can save them from the awful disaster coming.
Miller’s worldbuilding is well-done, although the uneven pacing makes it seem a little messy towards the beginning. The kingdom of Lur is divided into two races; the ruling and magic-wielding Doranen, and the working class and non-magical Olken. The Doranen came to Lur fleeing an ungodly terror in their own country, and their greatest magician, Barl, put up a Wall between Lur and Dorana. The Royal Family, in order to keep the Wall up, must feed it with weather magic–the ruler is known as “The WeatherWorker” (I really could have done with a space between it, as it sounds a bit too modern without it.) The Doranen see themselves as superior due to their control of magic, but the Olken are grateful for the weather control and the magic, which gives them bookbinding, gardening, and plumbing. There’s even a maddeningly vague Prophecy! The overall effect is a slightly modernized generic fantasy setting with an interesting class struggle that is central to the plot of the novel. It’s not the most original, but it’s a nice variation on something that will undoubtedly be familiar to the average Jane. (There’s an attempt for something vaguely Germanic with the use of “Meister” instead of “Master”, but it doesn’t really stick.)
Asher is a prickly and rustic character, but he is easy to sympathize with. Sometimes he can be a bit too proud or look down on nobility and finery too much, but they’re flaws he and other characters accept rather than poor or heavy-handed characterization. Gar can be fun but also troubled, as the only Doranen ever born without magic, and an immensely lonely man–before Asher comes along. Their friendship is central to the story, and it’s fun to see Gar take Asher under his wing and learn from him even as he teaches Asher. The rest of the cast is pretty evenly made–Matt and Dathne, the members of the Circle in Dorana, are as different as night and day but united in the same cause. (There’s a little piece of hope in me that Dathne, due to her outright stating she can’t love anyone, will remain aromantic, but it’s not a lot of hope.) The King and Queen, Borne and Dana, are nice people who are suffering under the heavy burden they bear, and Gar’s sister and heir to the throne, Fane, is a sharp and pretty thing with a temper. Since Miller bounces around from perspective to perspective, it’s nice to have such a varied cast that’s well-executed.
There’s something mildly and wonderfully camp about the proceedings. Every single antagonist twirls their mustaches so hard it’s a marvel they don’t pull them off, especially the Big Bad. While Miller does have a canon explanation for why a medieval bookshop is carrying lurid romance novels, when Dathne ponders the weighty matter of the differences between Doranen and Olken while staring at the cover of a book featuring your typical modern romance pose, I couldn’t help but giggle. For some reason, it was really charming to me, some sort of perfect balance between earnestness and silliness that made it delightfully camp in some parts. This is not to say it’s light (there are moments of real horror and sad moments as well), but these little camp nuggets pop up every once in a while.
While The Innocent Mage is, for the most part, a pretty good and a wee bit camp fantasy yarn, there is one major blow against it–it’s not a self-contained novel. The Innocent Mage is the first part of Miller’s Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duet, and I was wondering, as I read, how Miller would break it into two parts–would there be a moment of victory before everything went to hell in a handbasket? Would Asher discover his heritage at the end of this novel? Turns out, it feels like Miller simply cut the manuscript in half. The Innocent Mage has no proper climax and is mostly just set-up for the second part of the duet, The Awakened Mage (or Innocent Lost abroad). It ends so abruptly (on a literal cliffhanger, in fact!) that I couldn’t quite believe that was it.
This isn’t to say that the structure and pacing are bad, per se; it’s just the structure is simply just the first half of a story. The pacing, however, can be uneven. Still, there is a marvelously cinematic chapter that cuts between the King in the city and Asher and Gar on the coast that I absolutely could not put down, and the pace picks up towards the end. There’s also the matter of vocabulary. Miller does makes great use of wildly obscure English words to make Asher seem as rustic as possible, but, for some reason, she transcribes the word “naught” as “nowt”, which I thought was merely a characteristic of Asher’s accent–but then Gar started using it. Something about her use of “nowt”, even for nobles, started to slowly drive me up the wall. I’m not even sure why it did, but it’s worth mentioning.
Bottom line: While The Innocent Mage is a solid fantasy story with the occasionally charming camp moment, it’s only one half of a novel! It’s essentially the set-up for The Awakened Mage. You probably don’t want to read The Innocent Mage all on its lonesome; it needs its sequel to be complete.
I bought this book at a thrift store.