A Wizard’s Forge is entered in the 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), and while I await news of its fate on Lynn’s Books, I’ve started reading books by my fellow travelers on this journey. Here are my reviews of the first two I’ve read since the start of this year’s SPFBO. I reviewed The Ill-Kept Oath, another entry in this year’s competition, a while back (and I loved it).
Darkmage, by M.L. Spencer
This is a terrific epic fantasy in which things go from bad to worse in this story of a people trying to fend off an invasion by an overwhelming enemy.
The story’s hero is a rebel with a cause named Darien. On the night he ascends from acolyte to full mage, his jealous, power-hungry brother opens up a portal to hell. A bunch of demons, hell-hounds, and evil mages pop through and destroy his hometown, killing everyone Darien knows and loves. Then the bad guys head up north to summon the largest army the world has ever seen, with the aim of conquering the southern kingdoms Darien’s fellow mages were sworn to protect. Darien survives by pure luck, but then, as the world’s last surviving mage, he employs his wits to do whatever is necessary to stop the invasion of demons and their huge army, which his brother has unleashed.
Darien is the best thing about this book. Heroic and tormented, he makes choices that he himself, as well as his allies, find appalling, but which are the only way to defeat the enemy. Darien was raised with the belief that magic should be used only to heal, never, ever to harm, and upon ascending to full-mage status, he is magically bound to uphold an oath to that effect. But the rifles of the enemy cannot be stopped with daisies (metaphorical rifles–the weaponry is entirely medieval in this book), and Darien’s first task is to figure out a way to break his oath. This scenario resonated with me because I explore a similar situation in book 3 of the Woern Saga (something that lives in rough draft form), and it’s a natural outcome for magic users who find themselves with world-threatening powers. Similar to the principle of nuclear detente, the only way to control that kind of power is to vow to never use it. Unfortunately for Darien, the other side isn’t observing the truce any longer, and defensive magic alone won’t be enough to save his people.
I liked how Spencer developed his character and boxed him into a narrow path without options, and I liked how he remained plagued by remorse for the blood on his hands, but continued forging ahead with his plan. The magic system was also really interesting, in which potential mages acquire the ability to wield magic only if they are touching a full mage at the moment of the mage’s death. There is a system of power tiers, and we’re told that people above a certain level will suffer madness and a wasting illness. Darien unintentionally surpasses this level, which adds to the burdens he carries in the novel.
A few weaknesses are worth mentioning. There are a few anticlimaxes, such as an early chapter from Darien’s mother’s POV, which misleads the reader into thinking she’ll be an important character, but then she’s killed off-page. The priestess who was with the mother when she died isimportant, and I think the storytelling would have been more effective if we’d seen some of the narrative through the priestess’s POV. Sometimes the action-effect-consequence scenarios weren’t as clearly described as I would have liked, and I thought there were a few too many neat coincidences that allowed the main characters to survive and fight another day. Finally, Spencer’s writing would benefit from judicious pruning for verbosity and redundancy. There are no grammatical errors, but I found myself grinding my teeth as characters’ thoughts were repeated in circular fashion in multiple passages. Instead of deepening characters’ angst (which I suspect was the intent), the repetition robbed these scenes of emotional heft. All too often, less would have been more.
Despite these drawbacks, however, I enjoyed the page-turning action and admired the originality of Spencer’s story. There is much to admire in Darien’s sad descent into a self-made hell, where he must relinquish all his beliefs and become something he hates in order to save his people.
Finder of the Lucky Devil by Megan Mackie
The first thing that intrigued me about Finder of the Lucky Devil was its classification as science fantasy in an SPFBO group sale. I had thought it was urban fantasy, because its subtitle on Amazon is “a Paranormal Thriller.” It does indeed contain a mix of magic and mythical creatures in a setting that seems like present-day Chicago. But we soon learn that the characters actually live in a high-tech dystopia, where corporations own almost everything and are trying to gobble up whatever remains. It’s Percy Jackson meets Blade Runner alongside Lake Michigan.
At the center of the confluence of corporate greed and magical resistance stands Rune, a tavern owner hiding from her past self as well as a variety of corporate goons, super spies, and faeries who think she can find the mysterious Masterson files—a MacGuffin-like bundle of knowledge assembled by Justin Masterson, an ace computer programmer who aimed to integrate magic and technology. Rune has a magical Talent for finding lost things, and the story gets going when one of the super spies, a man who bears the title Saint (perhaps in a nod to the 1960s TV series?), tries to hire her to find Justin’s ex-wife Anna in the hopes that Anna will lead him to the missing documents. The trouble is, Rune and Anna are the same person, so she can’t take the job. The double trouble is, she needs the job, because the mortgage payment is due and the corporate villains are going to take the farm—or bar, in this case—unless she comes up with some cash, fast.
I’ll confess, I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned melodrama. I used to perform in them when I was young (and the bright lights of Broadway still topped the ambition list), and I always found the deliberately corny plotlines and silly romance enormously entertaining. Lucky Devil, which is about an ingenue under threat from a villain and the stalwart hero who does his darnedest to rescue her, takes the structure of a classical melodrama and subverts it in a very clever and highly entertaining way. The mustache-twirler’s role is divided up between several corporate enforcers, and the hero is a spy with a dark history of murder and betrayal. The ingenue, Rune, isn’t your typical blushing virgin who gets tied to railroad tracks either, but she is innocent (a key aspect of her character) and very, very good. She even dresses in white.
The story is also very effective at tugging at the heart strings (the emotional depth is a thousand times greater than a classic melodrama played strictly for laughs). Rune is a broken young woman with no self-confidence, who has been trained from birth to play it safe and hide from her own potential. She’s also deeply empathetic and has a nearly pathological need to help other people, even those she despises. This inclination toward helping others lands her in trouble but is also her saving grace. Many of the people closest to her spend most of their time tearing her down, constantly insulting everything about her, from her appearance to her weight to her intelligence, and it takes a while for Rune to stop believing them. You cannot help but root for this character as she discovers her powers and realizes she’s capable of saving herself and those she loves.
The narrative does have its flaws. It’s an action-packed roller coaster of fights, battles, and narrow escapes, but a lot of the action wraps up a little too neatly, with too many tidy coincidences, lucky accidents, and last-minute cavalry rescues. The text also head-hops in dizzying fashion, which can be confusing and sometimes robs scenes of emotional power. In some cases, I felt like there might have been a simple formatting error, where a skipped line between scene breaks was missing, but in others the point of view switches on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Mackie writes in an engaging, energetic style loaded with concrete nouns and illustrative verbs, but there are also a lot of distracting grammatical stumbles. Finally, the nature and motivation of the primary villain are not explained or explored in a satisfactory way, although perhaps this will be revisited in the next book.
Despite these problems, however, I really enjoyed this book. It made me chuckle, it made me cry, and it kept me turning pages. It’s a diamond in the rough in some desperate need of a jeweler’s polish, but it is still a genuine diamond.