I was busy reading this weekend; finished The Reluctant Mage by Karen Miller in less than two days. Here's my review.
I've read all the books, now, in this series (Fisherman's Children) and the previous one (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker) by Miller, which is set at an earlier period of time in the same world. So I think I'm qualified to write about The Reluctant Mage.
Anyhow, I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I won't say it's great literature (more on that later), and I didn't have high expectations going in, but it's much better than, say, The Prodigal Mage, the previous book in the series. My problem with The Prodigal Mage was that it featured a number of the same characters (e.g. Asher and Dathne) in the same place (Dorana City, and Lur in general), with the same issues (Barl's weather map and magic, Morg, etc.), as Kingmaker, Kingbreaker. I thought, with The Prodigal Mage, that Miller was writing the first duology all over again, only featuring Asher's son instead of Asher.
Well, The Reluctant Mage was not what I expected, and I'm grateful for that. Instead (bear with me for a small amount of plot summary), Dorana City is in shambles, Asher is in a coma, Rafel is missing over the mountains, Charis's father has just died, Morg is making a serious comeback, and Dathne is a shadow of her former self. It's up to Deenie (Asher's daughter) to keep it all together. Deenie has previously been described (by nearly everyone around her) as a "mouse," which I suppose means timid and quiet. She -- as I recall, and it's been awhile -- is affected by the magic she feels around her, and doesn't play a big role in The Prodigal Mage. After an earthquake in which her mother dies in a fall down the stairs, Deenie consents to put Asher in hospice care and takes off with Charis after Rafel, as she thinks Rafel can solve all of Lur's problems.
There are some things I do like quite a bit about this book, and I'm not a particular fan of Miller's. (I hated the Godspeaker trilogy, actually, and thought Kingmaker, Kingbreaker was only so-so.) First off, there are a number of long journeys in this book, by sea, by land, etc. Unlike certain other authors (I'm talking about Robin Hobb in The Farseer Trilogy), Miller frequently just says things like "three weeks went by." I LIKE this. Not every night in a three-week journey needs to be detailed. The party gets up, travels, makes camp, prepares dinner. Twenty-one times. It's boring. Miller skips the boring details, and I'm just fine with that. When something interesting, or important, happens, she does show it. (For example, Deenie's and Charis's boat capsizing, or their first encounter with brain-rotted people, or Deenie's first attempt to call and kill rabbits for dinner.) But if it's just walking, eating, drinking, and sleeping, we're not told about it.
The next thing I liked was that this book didn't end with a "happily ever after" for every character. Dathne's demise is early, and sudden. (I never really cared for her, I must admit.) Goose has become mentally addled due to Morg's actions, and he isn't fully recovered by the end of the book; he may never be. Ewen has to kill his own brother, who has become brain-rotted, and then has to watch Morg kill his father. Arlin has to kill someone he doesn't want to, to preserve himself. Lur is a complete loss and is left behind.
There were a number of aspects of the book I didn't care for, as well, and I turn to these now.
The absolute WORST thing for me is Miller's attempts at language and dialect. Doranen speech is closest to proper English, and the most bearable to read. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of Doranen characters. Olkens, despite having lived in the same country as Doranens for at least six hundred years, if not more, use a lot of what I guess I would call slang or informal language, with some words that may be made up (fratched) and some phrases (sink me bloody sideways) that, while I generally understand what is meant, just start to grate on my nerves after awhile. And then there are the people from Vharne. They use a number of odd phrases, as well ("clap tongue" apparently means "shut up"), but the worst is their sentence structure, and the worst examples of their sentence structure occur in the first chapters where they're introduced as characters. The best way I can describe it is as "Yoda speak." You know, where the subject and object of a sentence have switched places. ("Hard to see, the dark side is.") It's worst when a person is being talked about. I'm not going to go back flipping through a 672-page paperback to find a specific example, but here's something in the mold: "It's an animal, he is." (Translated: "He's an animal.") The first couple of chapters with the people from Vharne are torture to read; Miller must have gone back through the draft of this and deliberately changed nearly every sentence.
That's a long paragraph, so I'll sum up my point here: don't use dialect. It has an effect in speech, but in print, it's unbearable. Takes me back to high school and Jim from Huckleberry Finn. Well, Mark Twain is generally regarded as a good writer, and Karen Miller is no Mark Twain, and even Twain's rendering of Jim's speech, while perhaps somewhat accurate for the time, was hard to take. We get that Miller's characters are from different social backgrounds, races, countries. The language just distracts from the story.
On a related note, the relationship between the Olkens and the Doranen is poorly done, throughout the series. I get it, the Doranen invaded and took over and subjugated the Olken people. But for a large part of the first three novels of this series, the Olken people just sat there and took it, even started to believe the Doranen were superior. The Doranen, likewise, viewed the Olkens with contempt. Other than the relationship in the earlier duology between Asher and Gar, there was pretty much no crossover or friendship between Olkens and Doranen. And even then, Gar may have been more likely to get along with Asher because Gar, a non-mage in the royal family, was considered inferior due to his lack of talent. (For what I consider to be a much better, more complex, more in-depth look at the relationship between invaders and natives in fantasy, try The Castings Trilogy by Pamela Freeman.)
Adult authors often have trouble with teenaged characters, I think. Harrier and Tiercel were awfully mean and snippy to each other in the Enduring Flame trilogy (Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory). Hermione and Ron's bickering was silly, especially in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And for Deenie, the only alternative to being a mouse is being a bitch and hiding things from Charis. At least Charis calls her out on this. But there are ways to be strong, and a leader, and to deal with crisis, that don't involve yelling at your friend and keeping her in the dark when her life is also in danger.
There is something about the one-syllable names I don't particularly care for, although this may be a personal preference, so don't let it bother you just because I don't like it. But I do feel the need to bring it up; it's like having a Terry Brooks flashback (Shea, Flick, Pen, Bryn, Jair, Prue, Nest, etc.). The land where Deenie, Asher, and company are from is called "Lur." The sorceress who protected Lur for centuries through magic that lived on long after her death was called "Barl," which really does not roll of the tongue, in my opinion. And the evil sorcerer was called "Morg," which also strikes me as both common (being the root of "Morgoth" and "Morgawr" and other fantasy evildoers, from novels both excellent and poor), and strange, because of the shortness of it. Kind of like everyone calls an evil wizard by his nickname. Which I imagine evil wizards wouldn't usually stand for.
The placement of the men from Vharne threw me off, to be honest. The first chapter I'm reading about Ewen, I'm like, who the hell is this guy? It really took me a couple of pages to process, and then it took quite a long time to figure out how he fit in the story. I thought there was going to be a big conflict between him and his cousin Ivyn, but Ivyn dies rather unceremoniously in a fight with a generic "beast" and that's the end of that. I mean, I suppose the Olkens did need somewhere to go after Lur was destroyed, and Vharne serves the purpose, but this aspect could have been done better from a plot perspective.
So segueing to Morg from Vharne, there are a number of brain-rotted people being found in Vharne. Apparently, these people have pieces of Morg's sundered soul in them, and he's calling them back to him so he can become whole again. The origins of these people are sometimes mentioned, and it strikes me as strange. Vharne is in the southwest part of the continent (when we're speaking of everything north of the Blighted Lands). Brain-rotted people come from Rahoush and Manemli, countries to the north and east of Vharne, travel through Vharne. Even though they're trying to get to Dorana because Morg's calling them. The fact that I bring this up makes more sense if you can see the map, but Vharne is NOT on these people's route to Dorana. So why are they going there, if it's the wrong direction?
And now Morg. He's evil. He's a strong sorcerer, and getting stronger as he collects the pieces of himself. He's got some serious bitterness. He wants to take over the world. Minus the magic, I can think of a few dictators like this in real life. But Morg also personally enjoys killing the people who hold pieces of his soul in disgusting and gruesome ways, turning people into beasts that tear small children in half, taking over the bodies of others since he has no physical body of his own, etc. It's like, he can't be evil enough. It's just one thing after another. It's almost comical, how one-dimensional he is.
I know I always equivocate when it comes to offering a recommendation. Partly this is because I read nearly everything (though I don't LIKE everything I read). What a person will like depends largely on preferences, and sometimes people enjoy authors who are starkly different from one another. It makes recommending difficult.
This is definitely not the place to start if you are interested in reading Miller's works. Try reading the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker books first (The Innocent Mage and The Awakened Mage) or at least, Miller's first volume in this duology, The Prodigal Mage, to get some background. If you like Rowena Cory Daniells, or Glenda Larke, you will probably also like Karen Miller. If you've read Miller's other books, The Reluctant Mage is better than those, so I'd suggest sticking with it.
And once again, I apologize for the extra spaces after links and the placement of the cover image at the bottom. I don't think Amazon has any interest in fixing their Blogger widget.