When was the last time I read a starting entry of a series that strives so far for that true ‘epic’ feel, let alone one that succeeds? Hey, this is not a commentary on the state of fantasy today, I am loving the trend of shorter books with a tight cast; a fantasy that takes place in a city can show a lot more depth than some of the sprawling messes I have read. But occasionally I feel the need to read a brick of a book, one with a large cast, huge landmasses, and so much going on a map is needed. I have just found the last few entries I have read that tried not to have worked for me. A world can be built, religions and orders and other little details can be set, hell an appendix can even be tacked on to the back; none of it matters if this info doesn’t actually affect the story.
Hair has taken a formula in Mage’s Blood that isn’t new, nor does it really seem to be trying to be, but he does do an excellent job of making it his own. Obvious East/West parallels, this book doesn’t run from our world but rather borrows heavily from it, and then twists slightly give it a new feel. Jihads and Crusades, romantic languages with only slight variations, even a Christ-like figure that is twisted in a delightful way are present. This is not our earth in an alternate reality, but rather the influences are borrowed and used in a well-built secondary world that grows into its own as the book goes on. At first this style grated on me, I even made a small list of real world comparisons, but as the story moved I became much more forgiving until I stopped caring at all.
There is an obvious comparison to be made between Hair’s debut and The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker; and not in the least because of the use of Gnosis as the basis of the magic. Both deal with the build up to an epic war (each including an allegory to the peasant’s crusade within) and both stick with a fairly small cast of main characters and a more complex cast of secondary one. But while Bakker’s books have a legion of loyal fans it turned off just as many with its heavy philosophizing and incredibly dense structure, Mage’s Blood is the opposite; it is a quick moving, easy to read (which doesn’t mean simple), more focused ride with similar qualities. It is a tradeoff of sorts, less of the imagery, but better ease into the story.
Early on I ran into a PoV character that I just plain didn’t enjoy, something that continued for half the book and messed with my early enjoyment. A strange feeling; several adult characters with story lines that felt important from the start mixed in with one very YA feeling storyline dealing with a couple of students in a school of magic. And I will admit, the dislike of this particular character arc never went away even once it left the school; from there the young man went on a, well let’s call it a treasure hunt, that seemed to improbable and full of convenience for my liking.
Luckily that one character arc makes up my biggest complaint; I adored the rest of this book. The storyline involving a young female regent and her female body guard was a particular favorite; I especially liked bodyguard Elena’s resourcefulness in taking down magic uses with more power than her. (A note on the magic: The mage’s blood of the title involves actual bloodlines; decedents of the original mages have progressively less power through the generations, an interesting dynamic). The spy master was suitably cunning yet even early on showed flaws and weaknesses; a chess master but not invincible. The various plot lines were brought together well. No, not everyone ends up in the same place, but rather their pieces of the puzzle makes the big picture a little more clear, and the set up for the next book interesting indeed.
I am glad to see a new epic series that I am excited about. I am glad to see all the little details the author worked so hard to build actually matter (and will leave the debate on whether using so much of our world to build his secondary world is cheating or not for another day). And I will gladly read The Scarlet Tides, book two of the series, as soon as I can get my hands on it.