You may be familiar with Theo Beale as a blogger at Black Gate. Some of his posts have been controversial, but whether you agree or not, they make for interesting reading. So I was looking forward to seeing how his ideas translated into fiction. He’s given me a chance with A Magic Broken, an e-book novella equivalent to about 50 pages, written under the name Vox Day. It is connected to Theo’s novel, A Throne of Bones, but as I haven’t read the novel yet, I can’t say exactly how they’re connected.
There will be minor spoilers in this review, but I’ll try not to give away the ending.
I was interested to see that the world Theo created had the “traditional” fantasy races of dwarves and elves, along with humans. When I first discovered fantasy in the eighties, it seemed that elves and dwarves were staples of the genre — if it was fantasy, it had at least these two demi-human races. In the last twenty years, fantasy has moved away from that, but I must admit that I have a soft spot for them, especially dwarves. So I was happy to see the dwarf, Lodi, as one of the heroes of this story.
The story follows Lodi and the human spy, Nicolas, as they go after the same prize — a kidnapped elven woman — for very different reasons. A great love of elves is not the motivation for either. The dwarves, in particular, have a grudge against elves for a betrayal that is never fully explained in the story. But elves pay a bounty for any of their own who are returned to them, and Lodi is looking for funds. That’s one reason why he’s taken on the task of freeing some dwarven slaves, on behalf of the father of one of them. The reader’s given the impression that Lodi at least feels some compassion for his fellow dwarves. Going after the elf is purely mercenary.
From the very beginning, it’s obvious that the Nicolas is more than what he seems. While disguised as a mercenary, he’s actually a spy assigned the task of retrieving the elven woman, though the reasons aren’t obvious at first. He’s apparently quite comfortable with the use of subterfuge and betrayal to achieve his goals, and comes across as much more cold and ruthless than Lodi.
As for the elven woman herself, Dashella only shows up at the very end of the story, so it’s hard to tell much about her personality. She’s been ill-treated, and her driving motivation is revenge, which is understandable, if not laudable.
The story is well written, although the prose was a bit convoluted in places. Theo sets up a nice conflict, without an obvious hero or villain, and resolves it in a way that is as morally ambiguous as the set-up. I enjoy moral ambiguity, as long as it doesn’t turn into a relentless amorality, and I think that it works well in this story.
Beyond those three characters, some of the secondary characters fade into the background a little too well. Obviously, not everyone is important, nor can they be given a lot of attention in a story of this length, but the four dwarves whom Lodi freed are a bit too interchangeable, and some of the guards Nicolas works with were entirely unnoticeable until they wound up dead.
One character who came across very well was the city of Malkan itself, where the story took place. Malkan is an independent city, built by dwarves, but mainly occupied by humans. The humans acknowledge no outside lord but money, and the merchants control the city more than the nobility, whom they raise and overthrow at will. As we see Nicolas and Lodi deal with slavers, prostitutes, and powerful merchants, we start to see life in the city at ground level. It’s a city where life is cheap, even for the powerful, and where secrets are plentiful. It’s the sort of city that’s teeming with stories, and it’s almost a shame that the characters are in such a hurry to leave.
The novella comes to its conclusion quickly. The plot is focused, and events move steadily towards a climax without any meandering. As I mentioned earlier, the conclusion was ambiguous, and mostly satisfying. It wasn’t as visceral and exciting as I would have liked, though. There are still unanswered questions, and a few things I want to hear more about, but that’s the nature of a teaser story such as this one.
Overall, I quite enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to seeing more. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Lodi, Nicolas, and Dashella again.