Chaos, death by the magical Ash Blood plague and by monstrous beasts have consumed the country of Ystara, killing all who remain within its borders. The last survivors, holed up in a cathedral, speculate that this disaster must have been caused by a “ferociously single-minded” young mage, Liliath, whose unprecedented power to call on angels, particularly the archangel Palleniel, has somehow led to things going catastrophically awry.
One hundred thirty-seven years later, Liliath awakes from her magical sleep in the temple of Saint Marguerite, in the neighboring country of Sarance. The weakened angel who awakened her informs Lilith that there are now suitable candidates for her plan — though only four rather than the hundreds she envisioned. But four will do.
Liliath’s targets are four young people who have met in Lutace, the capital of Sarance:
- Simeon, a very large black young man who is an intelligent and dedicated doctor-in-training;
- Agnez, a brand-new Musketeer cadet whose talent with the sword is equaled by her reckless courage;
- Henri, a lowly redheaded clerk with a talent for numbers and a hope for finding his fortune;
- Dorotea, a gifted icon-maker whose unusual ability to quickly sketch icons that angels will answer to leads to her imprisonment in the Tower of the Star Fortress at the hands of Captain Camille Rochefort.
Still beautiful, still age nineteen to all appearances, Liliath renews her quest to be physically united with Palleniel, the angel she loves. She gathers new followers from the Ystaran refugees living in Sarance, but they are weakened by their inability to tolerate the touch of angelic magic, which turns their blood to ash or even turns them into one of the feared beastlings. The Ystarans or “Refusers” are treated as untouchables. Liliath’s leadership offers them new hope … but where is she leading them, and why?
Garth Nix’s latest fantasy novel Angel Mage (2019) is a four Musketeers type of tale set in a somewhat gritty fantasy world, an analogue of seventeenth century western Europe. In the map that appears at the beginning of the book, Spain is called Ystara and France is Sarance, with Lutace taking the place of Paris. The name changes and physical differences between Angel Mage’s map and the real western Europe drive home the point that one shouldn’t expect simply a retelling of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Angel Mage has its own unique plot, focused on Liliath’s stunningly self-centered scheme.
Although Simeon, Agnez, Henri and Dorotea all become Queen’s Musketeers, for three of them it’s mostly just a courtesy title. Their characters don’t really track the original four Musketeers in any meaningful way, except that a deep friendship and loyalty develops between them, despite their differences. Several characters from The Three Musketeers do appear in Angel Mage, although they are generally older and play supporting roles. Dartagnan, for example, is a 40-year-old woman who’s now the captain of the Musketeers (and yes, it’s Dartagnan without an apostrophe here).
Angel Mage is loaded with racial and sexual diversity; society in this world is fully and unquestioningly accepting of different races (of our four heroes, three are darker-skinned), genders, and sexual orientations. Most of the powerful characters are female, including the Queen of Sarance, Dartagnan, Cardinal Duplessis (which was the real-life name of Cardinal Richelieu), and Captain Rochefort. Two of the four musketeer friends are female, including Agnez, by far the best fighter. Not to mention the arch-villain and “Angel Mage” of the title, Liliath, who (in a move that will tickle Musketeers fans) is occasionally called Milady. Certainly Liliath is the kindred spirit of Dumas’ Milady, though their motivations and schemes are entirely different. At the same time, her name Liliath also evokes Lilith, the mythical femme fatale.
Nix’s magical system in Angel Mage is pleasingly complex. The angels in this novel are more secular than religious in nature, essentially winged spirits from another dimension. Angels are summoned by icons (usually in the form of rings or other jewelry) to exercise their magic for the benefit of the person holding the icon. Interestingly, calling on angels carries an often-steep price: you lose days, months or even years of your life, physically aging your body each time you use the icon, depending on the power and standing of the angel and the scope of the request. Liliath, however, has found a highly dubious way to avoid the aging effect, making her even more dangerous.
Angel Mage is more deliberately-paced than quick moving, but I enjoyed the world-building, the intriguing details relating to angelic magic, and the appealing characters. Nix’s unusual take on the legendary Musketeers and their encounters with the lethally dangerous Liliath is worth taking the time to savor.