Oliver is a minor mage in two senses: he’s only twelve years old, and he only has three magical spells, and the one to control his allergy against armadillo dander doesn’t count for much. The aged and increasingly absent-minded village mage wasn’t able to teach Oliver much before he died. But he’s all the magic his village has, so when a severe drought strikes, Oliver is ordered by the frightened villagers to go to the distant Rainblade Mountains to somehow “bring back rain.” No one, including Oliver, is at all clear on exactly how this is to be done, but they are clear on the concept that it’s a mage’s job. The villagers conveniently wait to gang up on Oliver until his mother, a retired mercenary, is out of town.
Oliver is frightened but willing; he was planning to do it anyway, though he resents being forced. (At least, he thinks, now his mother will be mad at the villagers and not him.) So off he goes, with only his armadillo familiar at his side, through (mostly) deserted fields with a few scattered empty farmhouses, like hollowed-out jack-o-lanterns, and then through bandit-infested forests. At least his armadillo familiar can speak, though it’s often rather snarky.
On his journey Oliver meets Trebastian, a teenage wizard with only one, singular magical talent: he is compelled to make magical harps out of the bones and hair of murder victims. The harps then shriek when their murderer is in the room. Now a murderer accused by a harp Trebastian made of the bones of two young girls, who happens to be the popular mayor of the last town Trebastian was in, is chasing after him with a posse of his friends and relatives. But since Oliver is being chased by cannibalistic ghuls (ghouls), they figure it’s even, and Trebastian falls in with Oliver and his armadillo on the journey to the Rainblade Mountains.
This is the story of their adventure. In T. Kingfisher’s Minor Mage (2019), a Hugo nominee for the Lodestar Award for best YA book, there’s magic, greedy bandits, flesh-hungry ghuls, evil humans and misguided ones. There are also some new friends and some life lessons learned.
“It didn’t matter that I was young, my village sent me anyway.” And he still resented that, but love and pity and resentment were all mixed together and he didn’t have any way to untangle them.
“Yes, … That is the price your village paid. You will never love them with your whole heart again. The shadow of what they did in their fear will lie between you forever. But they will be alive, nonetheless, and learning to bridge that shadow — or decide not to — is the work of adulthood.”
Oliver is a well-rounded, believable main character. He’s more noteworthy for his determination and honor than for his magical talent. He’s resolved to do what is right, even when it’s difficult and dangerous for him. It’s heroism in a small, resolute package.
T. Kingfisher excels in both the magical details, like gremlin-infested bread that has a tendency to explode and the gritty reality of making magical harps out of bones, and in the human ones. Oliver makes mistakes along the way, fervently wishes he could do more powerful magic, and frequently second-guesses his decisions — especially when they lead to someone’s death, though they were his enemies. His armadillo familiar Eglamarck is a delightful sidekick and a source of sound advice and love as well as sarcasm.
Kingfisher comments in her afterword that she debated with her editors over whether Minor Mage was really a children’s book. She maintains that it is, and I agree, but it might be too intense for some young or sensitive readers. Oliver’s journey is sometimes harrowing, with encounters with a remorseless murderer, brutal bandits, and ghuls that bite into people’s throats. With that warning, Minor Mage is a solid fantasy quest adventure with some introspective and thoughtful aspects to it, a treat for readers from middle grade age to adult.
I think you had me at the armadillo sidekick.