There’s always something a bit oogly-boogly about blogging your responses to fiction written by people you know (especially if you don’t necessarily know well them well), but today I’m going to bite the bullet and recommend Karen Miller‘s The Innocent Mage as one of those books that folks interested in writing fantasy should really pick up and take a look at in order to understand its narrative tricks.
I’m kind of envious of writers who can write big, doorstopper-sized fantasy novels at the best of times but this one manages to go somewhere interesting in its avoidance of standard genre tropes. I mean, The Innocent Mage feels like a traditional fantasy novel – you can run through the check-list of elements needed for a big doorstopper fantasy and they’re all there: Ancient enemy from the distant past? A young lad of simple beginnings heading out into the wised world? A prophecy ordaining a great battle between good and evil? The deeds of kings, sorcerers and princes brought to the fore? Check, check, check, and check. This kind of stuff is the baseline of the doorstopper fantasy genre, and their presence no doubt contributes to The Innocent Mage’s ability to satisfy as a big doorstopper fantasy experience. And it does satisfy, very well, on that front. I’m still recovering from the sleep debt I accumulated by staying up until six in the morning reading the book.
What surprised me wasn’t what was in the book, but rather what wasn’t. Things like, say, sword-fights. Or the start of the war we’re teased with via prophecy. Or big epic overland quests to pick up macguffins and plot coupons. Hell, by the end of the first book titular Innocent Mage is not yet a mage, nor has he even had an inkling that magic and great deeds are in his future. His heroic journey, as presented in book one, is essentially one of rising from fisherman to becoming the highest rank Bureaucrat of his race within the tense, bi-racial government system set up within the country. Even the evil sorcerer and his demonic army are safely segregated from the story for about three hundred and seventy pages, making a last-minute appearance to set up for the second book in the duology (where, I suspect, the inevitable war will finally kick off).
The revelation of the evil sorcerer is actually something of a let-down when it comes, because the real antagonist of the story is actually the protagonists best friend who creates conflict by continually asking the everyman analogue to become more than he is. In essence it’s Doorstopper Fantasy by way of a buddy movie, with the threads weaving together and getting you good and involved in their lives. While the background is epic, the foreground is all small-scale conflicts – interpersonal, political, and rarely physical except as a means of underpinning the former. Last week I suggested that the City and the City is one of those books worth pulling apart to figure out how it does what it does. I’m inclined to say the same thing aboutThe Innocent Mage– in terms of taking an established genre and fulfilling the expected tropes in an unexpected way it’s a brilliant read, but its ability to do that without calling attention to the fact is one of those subtle narrative tricks that I gaze upon in unabashed envy.
While there’s lots of everyman-journey stories out there in the genre (see the works of Eddings, Jordan, Tolkein and Tad Williams for starters), it’s a telling point that the stuff that usually make up the formative experiences of their champions (the journey from the familiar territory, the exposure to violence, the learning to become a hero) are neatly sidestepped or glossed over here without feeling like we’re missing something.