2017’s Battle Mage, by Peter A. Flannery, is an epic fantasy adventure, a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of war and some political treachery. It’s filled with magic and dragons. I reeled that off like I didn’t have to think about it at all, but in fact that capsule description emerged after a Twitter conversation with Flannery himself.
Battle Mage was in my AtomaCon swag bag. The title and the cover looked like military fantasy to me, which is not one of my favorite subgenres. I would have read it anyway, because 1) I do try to read outside of my self-imposed borders and 2) dragons! While troop movements and battle scenes play a large part in this long story, the book is not genuinely military fantasy, and military purists will no doubt roll their eyes the fourth of fifth time our handful of young heroes treat orders as, well, more like guidelines. The main stories here are the secrets of the dreaded black dragons, and the coming of age of a young man who has great power but is filled with self-doubt.
In a world that looks a bit like Europe, Falco Dante is a sickly youth, the son of a madman and a murderer. His father, Aquila, was a battle mage, a powerful magician whose magic shielded human armies from the tsunami of fear, dread, shame and guilt that the demonic armies send out when they attack. Aquila was one of the rarer battle mages who was able to call a dragon, and he and the dragon worked as a team. Sadly, Aquila’s dragon slowly changed color, turning black, and the magi (who have magic, but aren’t battle mages) have decreed that all black dragons must be killed because they go mad and slay humans. Aquila, instead of killing his soulmate and partner, fought against other battle mages to save his dragon, and they both were killed. This tainted legacy has come down to Falco, who is further weakened by a lung disease. When a demonic army of the Possessed threatens Falco’s hometown, his battle mage power is awakened. He has the ability, but does he have the strength to wield it?
The book follows the adventures of Falco and a handful of his friends as they journey to the capital city and join the military academy. Meanwhile, the gutsy-but-beleaguered Queen Catherine of their country stands alone against the spreading menace of the demons, as neighboring countries either refuse to fight, or are simply unable to help. The threat of the black dragons becomes more of a mystery, and soon it’s clear that the magi have hidden crucial facts about dragons, and the black dragons in particular.
Battle Mage is long, filled with battle scenes and strategy sessions, trials of strength and trials by ordeal. For me, the number of troop movements and battles was not a feature (I’ll admit I skimmed) but others will find these sequences enjoyable. Characterization is just deep enough to carry the entwined storylines. Falco is a fairly obvious Chosen One. There is a loyal friend, a bully, and a young noblewoman who wants to prove herself on the battlefield. There is a treacherous politician and a young mage who is conflicted by what he is learning about his order. There is a wounded warrior, a hot woman battle mage who is a badass, and the Lone Warrior. All of these types work just fine here.
By far the scariest parts of Battle Mage are the abilities of the demons and they fact that they use the souls of the humans they’ve killed to power their demonic warriors. Thus, the fate of the vanquished extends beyond death, unless someone kills the demon who killed you, and releases your soul. These are some pretty high stakes! The armies of Possessed, who are like zombies, was also deeply disturbing. Flannery convinced me that these adversaries would indeed cast a pall of terror over human troops, even before they started using magic. And their goal, to make the world a literal hell on earth, is believable.
I thought the explanation for the dragons and the concept of racial memory was a little more complicated than it needed to be, but I accepted it and it carried me along. Basically, I loved the dragons here.
Battle Mage read longer than it needed to be for me, but it is an epic. The battles are vivid, especially the ones with dragons in them, and yes, I do have a bias. The adversary is genuinely frightening, so I cared what happened to our young heroes. Lovers of epic fantasy will like this much more than I did, but it’s a gripping read. Good fun.