Battlemage by Stephen Aryan
Not too long ago, as I pondered which book to read next, it came to me on a whim that I was craving an epic fantasy novel where wars were battled with not only bow and sword, but with devastating magic. Granted, it’s a simple wish. I wasn’t looking for a deep exploration of human relationships or an allegory about the state of our current world. I just wanted to read about some big-ass battles fought with dazzling magic. I went to Amazon to search for that hypothetical book and the first search word that popped into my mind was “battlemage.” Lo and behold, right there as the first result of my query, was Stephen Aryan’s debut, aptly named, Battlemage. I read its description and it felt as if all my prayers had been answered. I clicked the pre-order button.
The premise of Battlemage is simple. War is coming to Seveldrom as a mad king has risen and united, through force and deceit, several other nations in an alliance fuelled by the lust of bloodshed and religious fervour. Aided by a rogue Battlemage going by the name of Warlock, and the Splinters, his apprentices, thousands upon thousands of soldiers are on route to crash into the walls of Charas and bring about the demise of Seveldrom.
For their right to exist unsubdued, Seveldrom will fight on three simultaneous fronts: through the shadowy plays of spycraft, the thick lines of soldiers, and the awesome destructive potential of the titular Battlemages. Talandra, daughter of King Matthias, is the strong willed and independent head of Intelligence in Seveldrom, renowned for the depth and reach of her connections and her mysterious Black Library, which is said to contain secrets about everyone of importance. Vargus, an experienced warrior, is introduced to us as he kills a group of bandits after they’ve raided his village, and we soon learn that he will be travelling to Charas to join the war effort as a common soldier. Balfruss is a Battlemage, one of the few people with access to the Source and who have undergone the strenuous training at the Red Tower. As Battlemage, he is “a massive crushing force that could flatten mountains, butcher armies and turn the tide of a war, if unopposed.”
Of these three viewpoint characters, the one with the most surprises up his sleeve has got to be Vargus. While my description of him might sound dull, as far as fantasy characters go, that description probably only fits him through the first 30 pages of the book, for as the story progresses, we learn that there is much more to him than meets the eye. In fact that’s one of Stephen Aryan’s strengths — his ability to make “generic” fantasy characters so interesting.
Aryan’s writing style is also well-suited for this type of story and, coupled with the never-relenting pace of the novel – hence my suggestion to couple this read with a heavy metal album — I just couldn’t put Battlemage down. For me it was one of those books where I wanted to spend every spare moment reading it to find out what was going to happen next, even when I probably had other things I should be doing. (I may or may not have been reading Battlemage during class.)
That is not to say that Battlemage is without fault. Various plot ingredients are too familiar. The clear good versus evil dichotomy is more in line with the epic fantasy of decades ago, and some aspects of the worldbuilding could have been more fleshed out. I noticed this somewhere after the midpoint of the book when I noticed that there only seemed to be a handful of people managing the entire kingdom of Seveldrom. Where are the noble families? If the king for some reason does not manage to produce an heir, how will the succession of the throne be handled? Where are all the officers of the army? These are small missing details, but they’re the kind that, when you notice them, they stay in the back of your mind while you read.
It’s worth noting that even though I pointed out that the good/evil dichotomy feels like an idea whose time has come and gone, I don’t think it’s a severe flaw. My thinking is that it would be a severe flaw in a book in which a lot of other things do not work, but given that Battlemage handles pretty much everything else that is essential in a story in a more than satisfactory way, I would say that the good/evil dichotomy, while out of touch with the current tendencies of fantasy literature, is not much of a problem. Maybe sometimes knowing who to root for and who to dislike is actually a nice change of pace? Other people might find it more of a problem than I did, as they say, different strokes for different folks, so that was why I chose to give Battlemage a 4.5 star rating rather than the 5 star rating it was for me.
Looking back through the scores of books I have read this year, there are books which I thought were more accomplished, that explored avenues of thought and emotion more deftly and thoughtfully than Battlemage. But if, while reading, I were to make a pencil mark every time I reached those highs every reader experiences once in a while when reading a book which speaks to his or her own private soul, then Battlemage must take the crown as the book which elicited more marks than any other. And to think that it all started because on a whim I went looking for a book where wars were fought with magic. I will be anxiously looking for the sequel, Bloodmage, which will be published in 2016.