I don't even know where to begin with this one. (Don't worry, I liked it.) So how about some general information? The Daemon Prism is the final volume (I think) of Carol Berg's Collegia Magica series, the first two having been The Spirit Lens and The Soul Mirror. I would definitely read both of those before approaching The Daemon Prism -- I actually find Dante, the chief narrator of this volume, to be a sympathetic character, but to the uninitiated, he might not seem that way at all. If you get his backstory and understand the previous events connecting him to other characters, though, you'll understand him a lot better.
As I recall -- and it's been awhile -- the previous two novels in the series were also first person point of view, but stuck to one narrator. Portier for The Spirit Lens and Anne for The Soul Mirror. So I think this was supposed to be Dante's book, but he splits narration duty with Anne (not equally), and gives one or two chapters each over to Portier and Ilario. I sort of don't feel like explaining who Anne, Portier, and Ilario are; all of them appeared in one or both of the previous novels and are really too complex to summarize in a couple of lines. Which is great -- the main characters are easy to remember, even if the novels are read years apart (as I did with these). I also didn't have much trouble following who was the narrator in each case, though Berg did some switching back and forth (I did sometimes have this problem with Song of the Beast, though that was Berg's first work and she has improved as a writer since then -- though that one was also good, mind you).
I started thinking about all the things I usually complain about with a novel -- bad grammar, words used incorrectly, tropes, etc., and it's difficult to come up with anything. I guess if I had one problem with the book, it's that there are several themes Berg revisits frequently, in different series. The details are quite different, but the skeletons are similar. You have a character, often male, who is beaten down to the point where you don't expect him to get up again. Seyonne, or Aidan, or Dante in this case. I mean, just all kinds of bad stuff happens to him -- slavery, unjust imprisonment, blindness. Also, Dante's time with Xanthe in The Daemon Prism reminds me somewhat of Seyonne's time in the demon world (it's been awhile since I read the Rai-Kirah series, so I don't remember the details, but I am reminded strongly of the overall theme). It also reminds me a little bit of the last The Tawny Man book by Robin Hobb, where there's a beautiful woman who tries to tempt the hero, all the while knowing about the torture of his friend, or ordering it (Portier, for Dante, or the Fool for Fitz). All right, guess I've discovered a trope.
But honestly, the tropes are few and far between. Anne is not so original, I think, I feel like we've seen other ladies of noble social status who (1) discover magical talents and (2) fall for men like Dante. Dante, as the powerful and angry mage, is not a stock character by any means, but he's familiar. But I really feel like the true originals here are Ilario and Portier. (My commentary on these two will draw from the previous novels as well.) Ilario acts the fool, but is in fact quite intelligent. He's gone for over twenty years with only a very few people being any the wiser (the king, Portier, and later Anne and Dante). I don't believe even his own sister knows that he's not a ridiculous fop. He made a conscious decision to do this, for reasons I don't quite remember -- perhaps his own safety, because he's a bastard, or perhaps that of his sister. His sister, Queen Eugenie, is fragile physically, having lost several children when they were very young, and emotionally, as well. And Ilario has dedicated himself to looking out for her. He's very good at putting on this act, and only stumbles after being nursed back to health from a severe injury and then having to go on the road while not fully recovered. And under a great deal of strain from the events of this story. If there are other characters like him in fantasy, I don't know of them. (Sure, there are lots of people who play a fool for awhile, but for nearly their whole lives?)
Probably the worst spoilers in this whole thing are in this paragraph. Portier starts out seeming fairly trope-ish -- the guy from a magical family who doesn't seem to have any hope at being a sorcerer, himself. (There were a few of these in the Harry Potter books, for example.) So he contents himself with being the librarian at the Collegia Magica, until he's drawn into events involving the court (he's a very distant cousin to the king) and the future of the world at large. He's had a string of near-death experiences, which, by the time of The Daemon Prism, everyone who is close to him believes have been actual deaths from which he has returned. He's not present for much of this third volume; we just know that Dante thinks Portier is in trouble (because he is). There is a cult that believes in saints reborn, and some of its members believe Portier is one of these people, come to save the world from some greater evil. Portier, whose magical talents were revealed/released at the end of The Spirit Lens, has come to believe himself to be the reincarnation of an old emperor, and when it becomes obvious during the story that he has to die to save the world, he willingly sacrifices himself -- just stops breathing, so that Ilario doesn't have to sully his own blade with his friend's blood.
One of the Amazon reviewers was right, there are a LOT of villains in this book. There's a Church Tetrarch who pursues Dante through most of the novel, only to change his mind at the end (there's a reason for this, and it makes sense in terms of the story, so don't let my cursory treatment of it make it seem shallow). There's a mage who has taken up residence at the site of some ancient mage wars so he can study that destructive magic, and gain it for himself (thankfully, Dante makes short work of him). There's Xanthe, who keeps Dante in thrall, and Jacard, who has styled himself king or emperor or something of the ancient city where Portier's previous incarnation was in charge. (Jacard was a villain from The Soul Mirror who escaped in the final moments.) There's Kajetan, a mage Portier knew from the Collegia Magica, who is dead but who wields influence from beyond the grave. There's a god called the Souleater who devours the souls of the departed and gains strength from doing so. There's even Dante himself, who has to partner with the Souleater (though he retains his original allegiances and tricks the god) and who has to do all manner of nasty things that Xanthe commands him to do.
Of these villains, Xanthe is -- to me -- the most complex. We see a lot of her because we see a lot of Dante; she has commanded him to teach her magic from some stones she's obtained (these stones are actually central to the story -- Portier takes them with him to the world of the dead at the end, removing magic from the world). I don't care for her, as she acts like a petulant child most of the time. She irritates me. She takes lovers and then if they dare to spurn her by returning to their families, she orders Dante to burn down their houses, for example. But there are, at least, reasons that she probably ended up this way, and she's torn between conflicting desires and demands.
Jacard and Kajetan are just basically evil here, though that's a devolution from their presence in previous novels, where they were more interesting. The Tetrarch's transformation from enemy to ally is good, I think. And of course we know that, while Dante may appear evil to others, he's not really so, and is only pretending to further the greater good.
I haven't yet mentioned two other characters who made appearances: Dante's brother, a blacksmith named Andero, and Rhea, a temple Healer and sort of a double agent for the Tetrarch. Andero serves mostly as muscle; he's a big guy and has been a soldier. Rhea is more complex. She's been with the temple a long time, but as a healer, she's more concerned with the health of her patient (Ilario) than with furthering the Tetrarch's demands, so she arranges to have Ilario spirited away from the hospice where he's been staying. She does report back to the Tetrarch, though, on our heroes' activities, and we think she's betrayed everyone, but I guess in the end, she does what she thought was right, and everything turned out all right.
One minor irritation: in the previous novel, Anne received some powder from her sister with the power to turn people who consume it, invisible. This device was employed a little too often in this book; there was precisely enough to use on everyone who needed it right up to the final confrontation.
There was a lot going on in this book, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. And that's in a trade paperback edition with only 482 pages! I'm not sure how I feel about beginnings and endings in this series. I don't think that The Soul Mirror or The Daemon Prism would've made standalones, as you do have to read the previous volumes to make sense of them. (The Spirit Lens reads rather like a standalone mystery novel in a fantasy setting, though.) I actually thought perhaps The Soul Mirror WAS going to be the end of the series (Berg has a duology out, so it's not unprecedented), so I was surprised to see The Daemon Prism. And that's why I said I *think* this is the last volume in the series. The book ends with Dante rediscovering a kind of magic (not the all-powerful sorcery he was known for, but something) inherent in all people and things. Well, he knew about it, I guess, and it's his salvation after the other magic follows Portier into the realms of the dead. So there's a lot of aftermath in society that could be dealt with in a future volume. The end of magic as it was known, including the end of the need for some of the Temple's services (readers). The end of the world of the dead as it was known, for that matter. And then there's Portier, poor Portier, who goes to his death without a whimper, knowing it's what he was born to do. He saves the world, but I really would've liked a happier ending for him (although, at the same time, it's refreshing to read something that doesn't end "happily ever after"). Maybe Berg was more distant from Portier in this book because she knew he had to go. And I'd probably find it cheesy for Berg to try to bring him back. But I suppose I *could* see that happening. (Or I could head over to her website or something and see if she has any more Collegia Magica books planned. But I'm too lazy to do that right now.)
At any rate, this review has reached a respectable length. I'll end by saying that my favorite things about this book are the exploration of Dante's character and motivation, the language and depth of emotion that Berg uses it to convey, and, actually, now that I think about it, the bittersweet ending. I would definitely recommend this book to Berg's fans, and the series as a whole to fantasy readers.