Sprawl is my favorite virtue of the novel. Not just this novel, Mage’s Blood, but novels generally, in all their varied glories. I may be the only person on Earth who is not at all perturbed by the ever-increasing length of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books and I was probably the only reader of Harry Potter who wished J.K. Rowling had made her last volume about fifty pages longer, though this is not the time to say why. Sprawl may be a virtue in novels, but in blog posts, not so much. I picked up David Hair’s first volume of the new Moontide Quartet series because it promised a large ensemble cast arrayed in a family saga big enough to keep all those characters busy for years. The word “Quartet” in the title helps, too, with its suggestion that the author knows where he is going with the series. And if the first volume is anything to go by, I think he probably does.
The world of Mage’s Blood is a sort of fever dream of Europe and its Near East, if the Mediterranean and Black Seas were impassably vast and the Bosphorus were hundreds of miles wide. East is east and west is west, and the twain meet only for two years out of twelve, when the moon–which in this world is close enough to Earth to fill a third of the sky–causes a localized low tide. The greatest feat of magic and engineering in history, the Leviathan Bridge, rises from the waves during the Moontide. For centuries, the Moontide was a time of trade, cultural exchange, and celebration, but the last two cycles of the Leviathan Bridge’s rise have brought catastrophic war to the southern continent. Depending on whose mind the story inhabits, the war is about religious struggle between continents or class struggle within the aggressing empire or secret conspiracies among mage lineages for control of the world.
For the main characters, clustered into three main plotlines, the stakes are of course far more intimate than that.
Elena Anborn, the most sword-and-sorcery protagonist in the most sword-and-sorcery plotline, is an agent of the north sent to destabilize the south, but she falls in love with the nation her masters want her to plunge into chaos. Ramita Ankesharan, an innocent commoner girl from an uncommonly fertile matrilineage, gets plucked out of her ordinary but happy life, and her betrothal to her true love, by a mage who believes his children will bring peace, if he can just father some–except that he’s six-hundred years old, and his magely power comes at a cost of drastically reduced fertility. Young Alaron Mercer and his friends offer up an interesting variation on the wizard-school tropes, made more interesting by their graduating pretty early in the book and having to bring their underdog-clique loyalty and Scooby-gang mystery-solving into the adult world when that adult world is bracing itself for war on a massive scale.
In a cast of thousands, not all the characters will be rendered with equal freshness, but the unevenness in this area was problematic for me as a reader. David Hair is clearly trying, in his worldbuilding, to do justice to about a dozen distinct cultures, all of them loosely based on real cultures in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia as they were during the time of the Crusades. His book-jacket bio notes that Hair himself is a New Zealander whose YA novels have been set in New Zealand and India, so it’s not surprising to me that the characters and intrigues among the non-Western nations feel more fully drawn and believable than the Western ones. When the sort-of-Sicilian boy in the wizard school plots plans with his friends to break into a place where they hope to find clues, Alaron Mercer points out that the boy has no experience at breaking and entering. “It’s in my blood,” the boy replies, and as far as the plot is concerned, that’s good enough.
Now, I was quite happy to sign on for a magic system in which magical ability is an inheritable trait and bloodlines lock characters into or out of situations in ways that they all know are not fair. But magery is not an ethnicity in this world–the earliest mages were of many ethnicities and their descendants can be found all over the world, on both continents. As a result, I was perplexed to find that the characters and plot were quite content for everybody from Silacia to have a knack for housebreaking, regardless of what their training or life experience might be. It seemed to me to be sloppy characterization, and once I hit that scene, a lot of other scenes in the book started looking shakier to me.
That said, there are some stunning set pieces in this book and what Hair is attempting to do is very difficult. If he has cut a couple of corners, and there are a few places in the opening chapters where the pacing bogs down a bit, I would say that’s all balanced out by the stellar pacing and vivid action in Elena Anborn’s tightly focused combat and investigation scenes. The larger-scale scenes in which magic functions as a weapon of mass destruction are suitably sweeping and chilling, and the more intimate scenes in which magic serves healing purposes are sometimes quite moving. In the three plotlines, the characters pursue three different goals, but none of them are arbitrary enough to be called McGuffins–each goal is particular to its setting and logical for its characters to want. The three plotlines influence one another and minor characters travel from one setting to another, but at this point in the series, the plotlines are not yet tightly interwoven. The implication is pretty strong that these characters will all know each other very well, for good and ill, when the Moontide ends and the bridge sinks back beneath the sea, three volumes from now.
Mage’s Blood is a ripping read. It’s not yet deeper than a ripping read, but future volumes might be, and I would predict that David Hair will be playing at the top of the game in his next series, whatever that may turn out to be.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.