The Daemon Prism by Carol Berg
The Daemon Prism brings to a close the first three books in Carol Berg’s COLLEGIA MAGICA series. I say “the first three” because there are enough dangling threads — a new form of magic, a royal baby about to be born — to support more stories in this world if Berg wants to write them. The primary quest, however, is resolved.
Berg’s world is similar to medieval Europe. The first book, The Spirit Lens, my favorite, followed a royal investigator, Portier, as he explored charges of witchcraft leveled against the queen. Portier’s investigation required him to work closely with the brilliant, rebellious and arrogant sorcerer Dante. What I liked about The Spirit Lens was the concept of a world in transition, where magic is being viewed with a more academic and scientific eye in the wake of a catastrophic magic war called The Blood War. I also loved Portier’s first-person voice.
Neither of those things is in the third book. With The Soul Mirror, the story shifted, and Dante became the central character. The Daemon Prism is a 24-hour Dante network; all Dante all the time. This isn’t completely accurate because Berg alternates first person point of view with Dante’s student, Anne de Vernase, who loves him, and Ilario, the brother of the queen. Still, this story is Dante’s and we are in his head a lot of the time.
In the second book, Portier, Ilario, Dante and Anne foiled the attempt of the powerful sorcerer Kajetan to open a portal into a place called Ixtador, where the souls of the dead are trapped. This would wreak havoc on the world, but since black magic uses souls as energy, it would create an invincible sorcerer. In the final battle with Kajetan, Dante was blinded. He has withdrawn from society and works only with Anne and one servant. Soon, however, a messenger brings a message to Dante that Portier has disappeared, and through magical means, Dante realizes that the Stones of Seeing, three powerful magical artifacts, have surfaced and are in the hands of Kajetan’s apprentice. Dante sets out to rescue Portier, along the way reconnecting with his family, most notably his brother Andero. As he makes his way into the lands where the Blood Wars started, Dante is confronted with clues that his own destiny awaits, and that it is a dark one, one from which there is no escape.
The plot centers on the myth worshipped by a tiny sect, that of the Reborn Saint, and the more general tale, supported by the Temple, of the Soul-Eater and the Righteous Defender, who was sent by the creator to protect humans. For generations, soul readers at the Temple have been able to reassure survivors of those who have passed beyond the veil that while their loved ones’ souls reside for a while in Ixtador, a kind of bardo state, they gradually move on into something like heaven. In fact, the Temple readers have been lying for the past several years. No soul leaves Ixtador. In fact, it appears that the souls trapped in Ixtador are being consumed. Ilario, who is a believer in the Reborn Saint, says that the traditional belief of the Soul-Eater and the Righteous Defender has been garbled in translation. Dante believes that he has been chosen by the Soul-Eater, shaped to be the demon’s hand in the human realm. As the story progresses and Dante becomes the prisoner of a seven-hundred-year-old sorceress, Dante sees no escape from his destiny.
Berg’s theological underpinning is a big salad: large helpings of traditional Judeo-Christian cosmology, a tablespoon of reincarnation, toss well and garnish with sprinkles from Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS series. After three books, I was a little disappointed by this familiar cosmological view. I was also disappointed by the lack of physical description of the new lands Berg takes us into, since we are in Dante’s point of view and he is blind. I liked Dante’s brother Andero very much, and the last one hundred pages of the six-hundred-page book crackled with action and energy.
I give The Daemon Prism three stars. It fell short of the bar Berg set for herself with the first one, but it competently wraps up the story and it’s easy to care about these characters, even Dante. Berg deals well with themes of sacrifice, redemption and faith. There is just enough humor to leaven an otherwise depressing tale. This is an interesting world and I would not mind visiting it again.