Mage’s Blood, by David Hair, is a sprawling epic clash of civilizations that will seem familiar to those who know their history and world cultures, though the addition of magic and some geographic repositioning keeps it from being simply historical fantasy or fully allegorical.
The setting and premise is given to us in an early (and somewhat clumsy) exposition by two of the characters:
When Kore made this land, he made two great continents [Yuros and Anitopia], separated by vast oceans, and he commanded his sister Luna to make those waters impassable, so that . . . Learned, noble, enlightened West and base, depraved, idolatrous East should never meet . . . but Meiros, an Ascendant . . . built that cursed Bridge . . . For a century we have seen the bridge open every twelve years, when the tides drop . . . Two Moontides ago . . . we marched our armies into Anitopia and we punished the infidel. We conquered Dhassa and Javon and Kesh . . . In 916 [we] strengthened our hold on Hebusalim . . . Now the Third Crusade is upon us; in one year’s time the Leviathan Bridge will rise and we will march. The Amteh Convocation in Gatioch has recently declared shihad, Holy War, which obliges every man of the Amteh faith to take up arms against us . . . This will be vast, epoch-shaping.
Vast indeed. You can see the obvious parallels to the meeting of the Islamic (Amteh) and Christian worlds (a third land, Lakh, in the south of Antiopia clearly parallels India),
though as if they were set on North America and South America, with Central America being replaced by a massive, magically-constructed bridge that only appears every 12 years. That magic, the “gnosis” in the book’s terminology, was discovered by chance several hundreds of years ago and the descendants of the original 300 “Ascendants” (some still living, including Meiros) inherit the ability, though in weakened form depending on purity of blood.
At nearly 700 pages, Hair introduces a large host of characters across both continents, though the POVs stick to a select few, including but not limited to:
Alaron: A young mage whom we meet in his last year at gnosis school, along with his fellow student and best friend Ramon and another friend (though he’d like more), Cym. She shows a strange talent for the gnosis when Alaron, against the rules, tutors her in the skill. The three of them stumble upon a conspiracy/mystery that may turn the world upside down if they can solve it in time.
Elena: Alaron’s aunt and a powerful and experienced battle-mage/spy who has a history of cold-blooded efficiency. Sent to worm her way into the Javon court as a prelude to assassinating the royal family prior to the coming invasion, she has, surprisingly to all including herself, discovered a conscience.
Gurvon Gyle: Another battle-mage and the head of Imperial Intelligence (Elena’s boss and former lover). When Elena shifts allegiances, Gurvon is put in an embarrassing position, one that could be life-threatening if he fails the Emperor yet again.
Ramita: a relatively poor Lakh girl who is chosen by the ancient Ascendant Anton Meiros as his new wife based on his divination that his children will be key to saving the world. Plucked from her world against her will, she finds herself at the core of the coming upheaval.
Kazim: Ramita’s original fiancée whose bitterness and anger is used by an Amteh sect preaching extreme holy war to manipulate him into following Ramita and trying to kill Meiros.
The Elena and Gurvon POVs cover the back and forth thrusts preparing the way for the West’s invasion, with Gurvon trying to weaken Javon prior to the Third Crusade and Elena trying to protect the royal family, especially the young girl-regent Cera, thrust unexpectedly into the role of leader of her people. The vast majority of time is spent with Elena, whom we meet after she has already changed from the cold-blooded killer she once was, though she still wrestles with this very recent alteration in her personality. While on the one hand, this change is something we as readers root for (always nice to see someone go from conscience-less killer to compassionate protector), the situation makes it not the best of timing, as she’ll need all her ruthlessness to protect the family and herself from Gurvon and his far greater resources. Her characterization is one of the strongest aspects of Mage’s Blood.
Ramita and Kazim give us two sides of the coming conflict. Through Ramita, we see Meiros as a man trying to do good while avoiding violence (it was his pained decision to not sink his Bridge, killing tens of thousands of Imperial troops, that allowed the first Crusade). Like Elena, Ramita goes through a major change in attitude, though unlike with Elena, readers get to see this change from the beginning, as she gradually, fitfully, begins to reevaluate her relationship with this ancient, wizened figure who basically bought her as a broodmare. Kazim, meanwhile, also goes through a change, becoming radicalized and darker in character, but while he does change, for him, the real conflict comes at the end when he begins to examine himself more closely.
Alaron’s storyline I found weakest. Partly because it was made up of a lot of familiar tropes — the young boy at school being bullied by richer, more powerful students, the young boy pining for the girl he seemingly can’t have (but wait, is she warming up to him?), a lot of sulking teen behavior, etc. The conspiracy seemed a bit baroque and its conclusion brings in a bit of deus ex machina. Overall, it held my interest the least and seemed the most padded.
Mage’s Blood felt generally over-long; I think it could have lost at least a hundred pages and probably more. It definitely lagged in places, more so in the middle and more so in Alaron’s plotline. Now and then there is some clunky exposition or lengthy info-dumps, such as the above quoted history lesson which comes via one character explaining it all to a group of other characters who lived through that history (the famous “You know, Bob” conversation often seen in 1950s monster movies).
Beyond length, the overt parallelism sometimes felt a bit too overlaid; I wouldn’t have minded some starker, richer cultural/historical differences. And the romance/sex aspects didn’t do much for me.
But despite these flaws and a few minor others, I enjoyed Mage’s Blood for its focus on characters, especially as the book went on. While the changes weren’t particularly surprising — I’d in fact call them pretty predictable — they were handled deftly and with some emotional power in places. None of these characters are the same at the end as they were at the start, and I’m curious to see where they continue to go. There’s also a lot of moral ambiguity, which I tend to be a fan of (though we also have our share of out and out evil folks). It builds well throughout even with the aforementioned lags, and the conclusion is strong and exciting through two of the three storylines (Alaron’s does ratchet up the action, but it feels a bit forced).
Mage’s Blood is a complicated big read and if it’s a little bigger than it needed to be, it doesn’t suffer too much for that. I look forward to the sequel.