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Book Review: The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller

Genre: High Fantasy
Pub. Date: September 2007
ISBN: 0316067806
ISBN-13: 9780316067805
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 642pp
Publisher: Orbit
Series: Kingmaker, Kingbreaker Series, #1

Not since I cracked open Robert Jordan�s The Eye of the World, or George R. R. Martin�s A Clash of Kings have I enjoyed a novel as much as Karen Miller�s The Innocent Mage. Rare is the book that makes me smile as I turn each page, or that drives me to stay up into the wee hours of the night reading. The Innocent Mage did that with its combination of intriguing and clever characters, juxtaposition of lightheartedness and solemnity, and fast paced story.

Miller�s novel is set in a fairly tale country long protected from predations of the outside world by a magical wall and great barrier reef that surrounds the tiny peninsula on which it is situated. Although not perfect, the country is at peace and people are content with the lot in life. The ruling class, a race called the Doranen ruled the lower class Olken through kind benevolence and magical power. The magickless Olken accept this with gratitude, knowing that the peace they enjoy is a result of this.

Enter Asher, an Olken fisherman who speaks his mind in a brusque colloquial accent, and his unlikely friendship with the cripple prince of the Doranen. Asher, elevated higher than any Olken before him, serves his country and his prince with all his heart. What he doesn�t know is that the Circle, an underground group of Olken, believes that he is the fulfillment of an ancient Prophecy, sent to save the country of Lur from its oppressors and the dark malevolence lurking outside of Barl�s Wall.

When you sit down to read this book, as you surely must, don�t be turned away by the country of Lur�s Disneyesque quality. This is no Cinderella story. There is mystery and intrigue even here. Politics is politics in any country and Lur is no different. The themes of justice, race relations, and family permeate this book and make it deeply relevant for our own time and place. Such themes are universal and Miller has her characters wrestle with them in much the same way that we have or will.

What Miller has especially done well is create a character in Asher that could be the boy next door. The reader identifies with him, and admires him for his brutal honesty, and unwavering loyalty (all qualities we wish we had in more abundance ourselves). We want to be Asher, and the three-dimensional quality of the character makes us believe we are him and that we too are residents of Lur. None of the characters in this novel are perfect, and Miller has done especially well in making sure we understand that. Each character makes good and bad decisions, even the hero. Such ability to truly round out a character is rare, and Miller does it to perfection, with a slow subtlety, so that it creeps up on the reader.

I particularly enjoyed Miller�s us of colloquial English, and her fascinating use of British and Australian phrases to make Asher seem truly a country bumpkin. The metaphors and comparison she puts in his mouth made me laugh out loud, surprising my dog and my wife. Such humor interspersed in seriousness shows that Miller has an great grasp of the emotional flow of a story, as well as its actions.

The plot itself is riveting. Although there are no fight scenes (other than family squabbles, which can be pretty rowdy in themselves) and very little magic use, I found myself unable to put the book down. I became so attached to the characters and their little problems (which eventually become much larger) that the lack of �action� was not missed. This is not a sword and sorcery novel, but a dramatic fantasy centered on the characters and their lives. For example, Miller has a unique grasp of family dynamics I haven�t seen in fantasy before. The royal family of Lur (parents and a brother and sister) could have been the very same one that sat around my dinner table every night growing up. Readers see their own families in the royal family of Lur and it is in being able to make that connection that Miller has wholly humanized their characters, making the drama of their lives just as important as the drama of the plot.

Miller�s story does slow down in places, but she excellently wraps her chapters and leaves you craving the next. The novel ends on a frustrating note, and the reader will be left craving the release of The Awakened Mage, the second title of this duology. Miller also occasionally has her characters act in such a way that rings discordantly with previous actions, but I would chalk that up to limited writing experience, and think that this will smooth out as Miller develops her voice. I would say as well that perhaps that the title is somewhat misleading, but to tell you why would ruin the plot somewhat. Still it is a strong effort.

Some folks will find the plot slow moving, or the lack of �action� dull. But those people who enjoyed the dramatic social interactions of Susanna Clarke�s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell will enjoy this story. As well, those who have enjoyed David Eddings’ ability to bring humor from the interaction of family will find The Innocent Mage a fun read. Not since Garion have I enjoyed the farm boy/fisherman comes to power story as much as I enjoyed Asher in The Innocent Mage.

No one who enjoys good fantasy should miss out on this novel, one of the debut novels of Orbit�s US release. In particular, those fans of the high fantasy of David Eddings, Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and Terry Brooks should buy this novel and its sequel. Although it lacks some of the grittiness of Jordan or Martin, it does have their appeal, and it captures the humorous nature of Eddings and the creativity of Brooks in a unique blend that readers will find enjoyable. The Innocent Mage will ensure that Karen Miller�s name is found in private libraries next other masters of high fantasy.

Read my interview with Karen Miller here.

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