Courtiers are figures of contempt and fun in most fiction. They are craven lickspittles and influence peddlers, usually without honor. In The Spirit Lens, Carol Berg gives us a hero who is a true courtier. He is diplomatic, disciplined, strategic and loyal to his king at all costs — and the costs are great.
The Spirit Lens is the first book in the Collegia Magica series. Portier de Savin-Duplais is the librarian at the Camarilla Magica. He is a failure. Despite his bloodline and all his studies, Portier cannot do magic. While this personal failure is deeply galling, it may not matter so much in the grand scheme of things, because Sabria, the kingdom that is Portier’s world, is changing, and magic is on the decline.
Portier is summoned by Philippe, the king and his distant cousin. There was an attempt on the King’s life. Philippe’s wife, Queen Eugenie, is the most likely suspect, but Philippe wants proof positive. Of course, the attack was magically driven. Of course, the Queen has two Mages from the college as part of her retinue. Of course, it was Eugenie who suggested that Philippe wrestle shortly before the attack, which required him to take off his personal armor. The attack happened on the anniversary of the death of Eugenie’s and Philippe’s infant son, and Philippe cannot bring himself to believe that Eugenie would use that date to attack him.
The King does not trust mages. He needs a student of magic who is not a practitioner, and someone who is loyal to him but not well known at court. Portier fits all the particulars. In spite of his fitness for the post, he was not the King’s first choice. The King’s closest friend and counselor, Michele de Vernase, investigated ten months ago, when the incident happened. He has not been heard from for many months. The King believes that the anniversary of his son’s death will be used again by this shadowy enemy. Portier has two months to solve this mystery.
To his chagrin, Portier is paired with Ilario, Eugenie’s illegitimate half-brother, who is touchingly loyal to the Queen. Ilario is bright, but he cares more about gaming and clothes than anything else. Berg writes, in Ilario, a great fop. To help with the magic, Portier also recruits a surly mage named Dante, who challenged the Camarilla curriculum and was awarded the title of Mage. He styles himself The Bloodless, a mocking reference to the fact that he is not sprung from one of the blooded, magical families, as is Portier. While The Camarilla’s magic seems to follow Newtonian rules, Dante’s view of magic is closer to quantum physics.
Blood, in The Spirit Lens, is vital to magic; not only the lineage of the magician, but the live-sustaining fluid itself. Part of Philippe’s distrust of magicians is the aftermath of the dreaded Blood Wars, which happened in recent history. Investigating, Portier soon discovers that magical students have been abducted and bled by an unknown sorcerer. This is an abomination, yet not so uncommon in the corridors of magic. Soon Portier himself is in danger, captured and viciously tortured by a masked adversary. Berg’s description of cupping and bleeding read as if she has done some research on these medieval practices.
Portier is intelligent, methodical and deliberate. He can be diplomatic, and much of his interrogation technique involves tricking information out of suspicious or unwilling subjects. The story moves rather slowly since is it a mystery, so Berg ratchets up the tension by providing a countdown clock. Each chapter shows the number of days remaining until the memorial of the prince’s death.
Portier is not perfect. His disappointment at his failure to do magic has left him with an unhealed wound, and more seriously, a huge blind spot. Dante tries to point out the obvious to him, but it is late in the book before Portier makes an important connection. It also helps that he finds out shocking information about himself, information that will clearly have ramifications in the second book.
This book, like many series books, does not end — it stops. The true adversary appears to have been identified, although not before he strikes a blow at the heart of Philippe’s kingdom. Portier is beginning to make use of the new information he has been given. He and Dante have parted ways, although Portier and Ilario are still friendly. Although they know now (maybe) who the villain is, they do not know where he is, or what his plans are.
This is a common sin among multi-book fantasies but it still irritates me. Another thing that irritates me about The Spirit Lens is the French connection. Berg designs both a magical system and a religious system (based on ancestor worship) that are internally consistent. The workaday world Portier inhabits, though, is a lot like fifteenth century Europe. Even the names suggest this, yet it’s not fifteenth century Europe. If this is a completely original world, Berg should have chosen less evocative names and fashions. This world felt stuck halfway between an original universe and an alternate-reality France, and this tugged me out of the story in spite of myself. For these reasons I am giving this book three and a half stars instead of four.
I will still search out The Soul Mirror, the second book. Portier is a sympathetic main character with integrity, honor and a sense of the absurd. I want to know what happens to him, his family and his friends.