The Margrave is the fourth and final book of Catherine Fisher’s Relic Master. The series as a whole is a bit thin on worldbuilding, emotional depth, and secondary characterization, but save for a minor drop-off in book two, it is a smoothly exciting read and The Margrave brings it to a satisfyingly strong conclusion.
As in the previous books, the story is split between Raffi’s experiences and Carys’. It begins with a bang as Carys is captured by the Watch at the very beginning. She is quickly brought to the attention of two higher-ups, the castellan Maris Scala and her lover Quist. The two of them decide to escort Carys to the Pits of Maar, the darkest center of the Watch where the Margrave is rumored to live and command the brutal group. Galen, Raffi, and the Sekoi soon follow after to try and rescue her, joined eventually by Alberic the thief warlord from earlier books. Along the way Raffi learns the Margrave is actively seeking him, and by the end of the novel, it should come as no surprise that the two come together. Between Carys’ capture and that meeting, there are battles to be fought, castles to be stormed, alliances to be made and broken, faiths and loyalties to be tested and truths — some painful — to be learned about the planet Anara’s past and the history of its Makers. And nearly all the characters are forced to make difficult ethical and moral decisions.
The pacing is quite strong throughout. The action is quick and exciting, the slower parts are interesting due to revelations of character or resolutions of past mysteries, and Fisher moves between the two smoothly, knowing just when to cut short a battle scene or move us out of the quieter, slower moments.
As has been the case throughout the entire series, The Margrave shines when the focus is on Carys. It’s true that Fisher could be accused of playing the “whose side is she really on” card a bit too often in the series, but it works, so it’s hard to complain about it. Having appeared in the first book already strong and independent, her development has been choosing a side. Here, that aspect of her character mostly taken care of, we get to see her develop in other ways, watching her growing relationship (at a distance) with the characters she has fallen in with. Galen, who started to break out of his one-note characterization in book three, The Hidden Coronet, continues to develop as a more complicated, more self-aware character, as does the Sekoi who along with Carys is my favorite character in the series. The return of Alberic is a welcome choice; I missed his acerbic nature and dialog when he went missing from the books and he adds a funny and sharp edge here. Quist and Scala are a bit sketchy, but they do a nice job of representing two possible paths for the Watch. Raffi, though he does much, much more in this novel, remains the frightened passive character he has been throughout, almost always reacting rather than acting. His growth by the end is welcome, if a bit abrupt, though as I mentioned in my review of The Hidden Coronet, I do kind of like being shown a frightened young boy who, very realistically, stays mostly a frightened young boy from a small village rather than bravely shouldering his responsibilities (and magical sword) to head off and save the world after the requisite single scene where he protests he isn’t all that brave. I’ve complained about his role before, but now that I’ve finished, I think I’ll actually give Fisher credit, whether my reading was her intent or not.
The title character, however, is a much more richly complex character. I can’t say much about him without spoiling the ending, but he gives the series a darker, more mature tone and storyline, making a good book even stronger in its last few chapters.
As mentioned in previous reviews, the worldbuilding, such as it is, is thin. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more detail in the settings, especially as the glimpses we’re given are so evocative. But for a YA novel, it’s certainly sufficient. Some of the plot points are settled a bit too easily, some of the darker questions or acts of the past — nicely handled throughout the book — are glossed a bit too easily at the very end. And we do learn a lot about the Makers via stretches of monologue, but it’s hard to see how that could have been avoided.
All these are relatively minor complaints, however, and several of them can be explained away by the fact that it is a YA series, and one that isn’t demanding a multi-month commitment to get through. Younger YA readers ages 10-13 will probably happily speed right through the series. Older readers may note the lack of rich detail and have some issues with thin plotting or characterization or wish for a bit more interpersonal intensity, but still find it to be a captivating ride that ends in The Margrave with a richer, more sophisticated emotional complexity that had been lacking somewhat in the prior books. Recommended.
Relic Master (The Book of the Crow) — (UK: 1998-2001, US: 2011) Young adult. This series was previously published in the UK as The Book of the Crow. It was released as Relic Master in the US in 2011. Publisher: Raffi is apprenticed to the Relic Master, Galen, whose task it is to keep safe the relics of a bygone age. But his powers are weakening and he and Raffi set off to meet the makers in the City of Crow to find out why. Will they survive? Or will the ever-present Watch eliminate them.