In the UK Orbit is the largest Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher, responsible for bringing readers such authors as Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Orson Scott Card, Laurell K. Hamilton, Tad Williams, J.V. Jones, R. Scott Bakker, etc. In September 2007, Orbit made its US debut thanks to Hachette Book Group USA, and brought with them a diverse blend of fantasy, science fiction and urban fantasy. There were eleven launch titles, including Karen Miller’s The Innocent Mage which was the first Orbit US release that I had the pleasure of reviewing.
In a world ravaged by dark magics, a powerful mage named Barl sought sanctuary for her people and sacrificed herself in creating the Wall, a magical barrier that would protect the Kingdom of Lur from the reaches of the evil Morg. For over six hundred years, the two peoples of Lur — the Doranen and the magickless Olken — have lived in relative peace and prosperity with one another, but according to Prophecy, the Final Days are drawing near and only the Innocent Mage will be able to “save the world from blood and death.” Enter Asher, an Olken fisherman, youngest of seven sons, who travels to the city of Dorana in search of an honest income to help support his father and instead, ends up befriending the Crown Prince of Lur and becoming a valuable asset to the throne… and the unwilling pawn of Prophecy.
Okay, so the overall plot is nothing to marvel at. In fact, it’s pretty generic stuff and if you follow any kind of fantasy at all, then you’re probably pretty familiar with a lot of the archetypes that Ms. Miller employs, including prophecy, an ancient evil, a Hero destined to save the world, a mysterious group known as the Circle whose job is to serve Prophecy, Monarch politics, Asher being a nobody and then becoming rich and famous, Asher falling in love with someone who can’t love him back because of duty, a hidden library full of ancient texts, recognizable magic concepts, and so on.
Fortunately, it’s not all run-of-the-mill clichés. There’s Barl’s First Law, a cardinal rule that states no Olken may practice magic under penalty of death, which is just one of the variables behind the tension/prejudice between the two peoples that comes into play throughout the book. Then there’s another rule where the ruling family can only have one heir, but because Prince Gar is “magickless,” an exception is made and he now has a sister, which causes some complications for the family especially towards the end of The Innocent Mage. There are a few other fresh ideas as well, but those are the ones that stood out.
As far as the cast, you have fisherman-turned-Assistant Olken Administrator Asher, Prince Gar and his family — King Borne, Queen Dana, Princess Fane — Jervale’s Heir Dathne, her soul-sworn Matt, the Master Magician Durm, Gar’s Private Secretary Darran and his assistant Willer, none of which are that complex or original. In other words, the good guys are likeable and have few flaws, while the antagonists are easy to dislike. That said, the characterization is actually the strength of the book. Ms. Miller spends a lot of time developing her characters, is quite good with dialogue and conveying thoughts and emotions, and has a knack for distinguishing each personality. In particular, Asher is a short-tempered, forthcoming individual best characterized by his distinctive accent. While the lingo/slang can get a bit annoying, I was impressed with the effort that Ms. Miller put into this and thankfully the accent becomes less of an issue as the book progresses.
My only real complaint was the haphazard manner in which the narratives were presented. Aside from Asher and Dathne, it’s not readily established who the main characters are and who the supporting cast is, and there are long stretches where certain characters just seem to disappear. Also, a few narratives like that of Darran and Willer seemed to bear no importance whatsoever to the story (unless the two happen to play an important role in the sequel).
Overall, Karen Miller’s The Innocent Mage has its share of drawbacks: The story and characters are not that creative. The book is on the long side and is notably lacking in the action department. The worldbuilding is a bit sparse despite the obvious time and effort Ms. Miller took in establishing the Kingdom of Lur. And the novel as a whole likes to play it too safe never venturing beyond PG territory. Specifically, there were a lot of prospective conflicts involving certain characters in the book like Darran, Willer, Conroyd Jarralt, etc., that never reach their potential.
Despite all of this, I happened to like The Innocent Mage and thought it was a fairly enjoyable fantasy. In addition to the characters, I was most impressed with Ms. Miller’s writing, which may have not been that stylish, but was engaging, and for the most part, technically proficient. I also really liked the jaw-dropping, cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, I only had to wait a month to find out what happens in The Awakened Mage and to see how the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker is concluded. In the end, if fantasy’s your thing and you don’t mind treading over familiar ground, then Karen Miller’s The Innocent Mage is definitely worth a look and might be better than you expected.
The youngest son in a family of hard-working fishermen, twenty-year-old Asher steals away from his coastal home to find his fortune in the kingdom’s capitol. He intends to return after one year, coin-purse bulging, to give his father an easier life; but once in the city, he unknowingly finds himself hitched to the puppet-strings of a Great Prophecy. For, as envisioned by a secret circle of prophecy-keepers, Asher may be the kingdom’s only hope against a long-dormant Dark Lord who is awakening in the North, behind the magical wall that has protected the land for centuries …
And so on and so forth. If only the story of The Innocent Mage (Book One of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology), as told by first-time novelist Karen Miller, were as subtle and intriguing as the book’s cover. Karen Miller is a competent writer, word for word, and she shows a particular sensitivity to the flow of dialogue, especially argument, between friends.
However, the 640 pages of the novel are nothing more than a prologue for the conflict to come. (At least one assumes it will come, and Asher will, despite much self-doubting and protesting, become The Awakened Mage and save the world.)
Ms. Miller shifts easily from one character’s viewpoint to another and shows range in moving from Asher’s rough, salty perspective to the more refined ones of royalty. (That said, the villain’s viewpoint is so stereotypically oily that one expects him to invent railroad tracks and grow mustaches, the better to place damsels in distress and have something to twirl while laughing sinisterly.) But overall, the pacing is simply too… bloody… slow — which is one of the problems of draping a protagonist with the heavy mantle of Great Prophecy: unless the story is told with extreme care, it loses dramatic tension, as the reader knows what will essentially happen next and is only left with discovering how it will happen. (Miller or her editor may have recognized this and attempted to manufacture tension by inserting chapter breaks in the middle of long scenes.)
I was able to finish this novel, and at times, I was taken in by the characters’ relationships and Karen Miller’s undemanding style; but I cannot recall reading a fantasy novel and being so annoyed at the lack of progress. Suffice it to say that both cover and title are misleading, as Asher doesn’t even experiment with the tiniest spell. (The Innocent Fisherman Comes to Town would have been more appropriate.) I refuse to read the sequel unless someone I trust assures me of its payoff.
Recommended only for fans of epic fantasies wherein orphan boys make good and save the world. Two slow-drying starfish.
Kingmaker, Kingbreaker & Fisherman’s Children — (2005-2011) The Awakened Mage is also published as Innocence Lost. The Prodigal Mage begins a sequel series called Fisherman’s Children. Publisher: “The Innocent Mage is come, and we stand at the beginning of the end of everything.” Being a fisherman like his father isn’t a bad life, but it’s not the one that Asher wants. Despite his humble roots, Asher has grand dreams. And they call him to Dorana, home of princes, beggars, and the warrior mages who have protected the kingdom for generations. Little does Asher know, however, that his arrival in the city is being closely watched by members of the Circle, people dedicated to preserving an ancient magic. Asher might have come to the city to make his fortune, but he will find his destiny.