a review by Nalini Haynes
Mage’s Blood by David Hair is an epic international political high fantasy.
The blurb for this book does NOT do the book justice:
The Moontide Bridge is about to open. The world trembles on the brink of cataclysm… Most of the time the Moontide Bridge lies deep below the sea, but every 12 years the tides sink and the bridge is revealed, its gates open for trade. The Magi are hell-bent on ruling this new world, and for the last two Moontides they have led armies across the bridge on “crusades” of conquest.
Based on the blurb I very nearly passed over this highly recommended fantasy read. The publisher has SERIOUSLY undersold this novel. What it’s REALLY about:
Political intrigue in the Emperor Constant Sacrecour’s court on the northern continent feels somewhat distant from the main focus of this novel although this intrigue establishes motives of the powers that be, directing countries and affecting the lives individuals therein, in the lead up to the war. We meet the more engaging characters a few chapters in.
Alaron, a student at a prestigious mage college, prepares a thesis that is sufficiently controversial to be unwise considering his low social status, then loses his temper in a confrontation with a social superior. After his failure Alaron chooses to become an outlaw by using his mage-craft regardless of a lack of ‘licence’. Alaron’s culture seemed Italian, while his friends – Cym the girl he taught mage craft illegally, and Ramon, a fellow student and successful graduate mage – seemed to be Romani (Gypsy) and Sicilian respectively.
Ramita is a 16 year old girl engaged to the love of her life when her father sells her to a higher bidder who effectively needs a brood mare. Brought up in a culture distinctively Indian, Ramita submits to the wishes of her father, marrying a foreign (white) mage against her expectations, in violation of her cultural and religious beliefs. Huriya is Ramita’s foster-sister although she’s from a different – probably Moslem-esque – background. Huriya asks to go with Ramita after the wedding.
Kazim is Huriya’s brother and Ramita’s former fiance; Jai is Ramita’s brother and Kazim’s close friend. Kazim is devastated when he loses the beautiful Ramita, his love, his prize, opening himself to overtures from men who seem suspiciously like recruiters for an extreme right-wing religious group.
Meanwhile, in another southern country, Elena, a mage warrior, protects the children of the royal family. Her boss, the mercenary Gyle, manipulates Elena from the northern emperor’s court. Elena’s weapon skills, personality and involvement in a rebellion several years earlier have made her a pariah to her class and country, so she seeks work elsewhere. In the four years of her current posting, she’s come to love the country and the people even though she’s acutely aware of her status as outsider. Elena and Cera, the eldest royal princess, form the central threads to their country’s storyline.
David Hair has created a truly international novel using the basis of real cultures and historical international politics with lashings of creativity. There are more characters and cultures than mentioned above, but these were the most engaging and most central characters in this story to date although many other characters were vital to the plot.
Early on in Mage’s Blood I was practically cheering the representation of gender roles, even after Hair presented a very traditional ‘quote’ talking about the place of women. The wide range of women in the story, their differing personalities and challenges, does any writer credit. But. By the end I decided that I need to read at least the next novel if not the entire quartet before passing final judgement in this area.
Ramita was a 16 year old virgin when she parted with her beloved Kazim, meeting him again as a married woman who had started to build a relationship with her husband. Regardless of the consequences for adultery in her society (the death penalty), Ramita should have been shy upon her reunion with Kazim, but instead the’re at it like bunnies within minutes. I felt that this was inconsistent with her character, who may have succumbed over time – maybe not much time – but it would have taken some time, some wooing for her sex drive to override her inhibitions. So we have a woman who betrayed her husband with her lover and betrayed her lover with her husband.
Cera, the royal princess whose life Elena saved, while protected from Gyle’s magic listens to Gyle knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of her parents. Nope. No. Fucking. Way. Puppet master manipulating the princess to move the plot forward. If she’d been open to Gyle’s magic, then he could have legitimately wormed his way into her mind, but Hair emphasised that Elena’s wards protected Cera from Gyle. Add to this implications that Cera may be in love with Elena, and the question arises: is Cera manipulated like Eve in the Garden of Eden (a similar implication to the ‘quote’ with which Hair introduced a chapter) because she’s a woman or because she’s a lesbian? Either way, not happy.
Huriya asked to go north with Ramita when Ramita married. It is on the eve of Ramita’s wedding that Huriya starts to reveal her avarice. Fine, this is a feature of Huriya’s character. The problem occurs when the greedy and manipulative Huriya acts against her driving instinct of greed, legitimately motivated by wealth and a need for security, by risking all in helping Kazim gain access to Ramita even though she’s still angry with her brother. As Huriya is escorted by a trustworthy guard whenever she leaves the palace and she didn’t have an established relationship with religious extremists before this point, Huriya’s behaviour here suspended my disbelief. Hair has a habit of mentioning something – for example, Elena’s arrival on the southern continent when the Moontide bridge was submerged – and then later giving the explanation in an unlinked passage. I actually enjoyed this: no exposition, lead the reader on, then – GOTCHA! – it all fits together. However, if there was an explanation for Huriya to risk everything before she discovered her possible goal in the extremists’ camp, I felt Hair should have disclosed it in book one. Also, I thought it unlikely that Huriya could escape her careful guard before entering the extremists’ camp so that she could learn enough to negotiating her reward. If she had evaded her guard, there should have been consequences. Huriya seemed to be a puppet whose actions and motivations needed work. And licking the blade of the dagger after murdering her lover? Eew! Monstrous feminine. Need I say more?
My final criticism of Mage’s Blood is also minority-based. Coin is a hermaphrodite, a tool of the emperor’s mother; this does not necessarily make Coin good or evil, just a pawn. However, Hair doesn’t leave Coin as merely a tool whose point of difference gave Coin an amazing skill; Hair stressed that Coin’s difference was a deformity caused by being the child of incest. Aargh. This pisses me off no end. I loathe albinos cast as villains as a form of pseudo-political correctness (hey, we’re not using Africans or Chinese, so it must be ok). Likewise hermaphrodites are real people; stigmatising their difference in this way is equally damaging.
Two of the aspects of Mage’s Blood I truly loved were the international politics and the respect for multiple points of view, regardless of positioning in conflict. Even the relationship between the extremist religious group and the more moderate majority of the religion was presented respectfully, promoting understanding of maybe why moderates support and hide terrorists in real life. Both sides of the past conflict between northern and southern continents were presented from the points of view of participants. The only real evil in Blood is the powers that be who seek power and money at the cost of lives. In Blood there is evil, but evil is rare; most characters just seek to live their lives as well as they can.
Comparison with A Game of Thrones
Like Mage’s Blood, A Game of Thrones is fantasy, focusing on politics at a personal level, introducing a detailed world with bloody conflict from the point of view of a range of characters, told in the third person. The differences between the two are that Blood isn’t quite as gory as Thrones although the quartet may become more bloody in the future.
Blood has a range of point of view characters but not as many as Thrones with its ever-expanding multitudes. Thrones introduces each chapter with the name of the featured point of view character; Blood introduces each chapter with a brief title, ‘quotes’ from historical or religious works in Urte, the world in which it’s set, the location and the time until the Moontide that will herald the next world war. This sets the location and time of chapter, leading to the characters while not necessarily dictating who the point of view character is for the chapter.
Mage’s Blood has more magic; indeed, it’s a high fantasy, where A Game of Thrones has very little magic. In Blood, magic is carefully structured. Magic is a ‘professional’ job, like a trade for the upper class, with rules, potential and limitations, although the limitations are largely personal and reliant on one’s tools. I like magic to have limitations and costs, so this sits well with me. I’m a bit concerned about the ‘ascendant’ or highest level of power; ascendants were minor characters in this novel but will probably come in to play more in later installments. Ascendants are neither invulnerable nor omnipotent, so it depends on how Hair manages these characters. This point is a ‘wait and see’.
Comparison with Heir of Night
Heir of Night by Helen Lowe won the Morningstar Award this year; it’s the first of a trilogy by another Kiwi (New Zealand) author, so comparison seems apropos. Both Heir and Blood are high fantasy novels but the magic is structured very differently. Lowe’s magic is more akin to European mythology, with special reference to the Wild Hunt, while Hair’s magic is more akin to a profession. The best analogy is Hair’s magic is like a cross between athleticism, carpentry and being a lawyer. Blood features religion as part of society and an important facet of characters’ lives, but he narrates from a humanist point of view.
Both novels have riveting plots and richly developed characters.
Lowe’s prose is more poetic than Hair’s, which is more prosaic. Hair’s prose suits the novel, carrying the reader well without distractions or ambiguity.
Mage’s Blood is a doorstoopper but it’s one of only four books, so don’t be daunted by its size. I hope that future instalments of The Moontide Quartet will resolve my concerns about the representation of women and hemraphrodites in Mage’s Blood. The plot and characters captured my imagination, carrying me on the waves of action to the hiatus between books. Apart from my reservations listed in the spoilers section, I LOVED Mage’s Blood and highly recommend it.