The Innocent Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker book 1)
By Karen Miller
HarperCollins Voyager, 2005
Innocence Lost (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker book 2)
By Karen Miller
HarperCollins Voyager, 2005
If ten-volume heroic fantasies have become the corporate clone boy bands of speculative fiction, what does that make a two-volume epic? Milli Vanilli?
Thankfully, in this case, no.
Although I do have a confession to make. The following comment in my November 2005 IROSF article "Wizards: The Real Problem with Fantasy Writing," referred to book one of Kingmaker, Kingbreaker (The Innocent Mage):
A stock "young peasant lad discovers he's the chosen one and saves the world" fantasy story was ticking along nicely for the first two-thirds of volume one, The Innocent Mage. It had offered up a couple of entertaining deviations from the norm, such as the Chosen One being written as a cantankerous Yorkshireman. There was some nice interplay between the principle characters, a dash of political intrigue.
Then the Evil Wizard Lord turned up. Yawn.
Disparaging asides notwithstanding, I recently picked up book two (Innocence Lost), released in Australia earlier this year. How, I wanted to know, did Miller (a debut novelist) manage to get a major publishing house to take on a fantasy epic of less than three volumes? In answer: the sequel has made me eat my earlier words about Kingmaker, Kingbreaker. (Although not about the problem of wizards, dammit!)
Briefly: centuries ago, the land of Lur and its Olken natives were conquered by the Doranen, refugees from a magical war in their homeland. The two groups came to an accommodation in which the Olken would cease to practice magic and submit to Doranen kingship. In return, the Doranen would erect a magical wall around Lur to protect it forever from the Evil Wizard Morg, victor of the Doranen wars, and his demonic armies.
Of course, we all know how long "protect it forever" lasts in fantasy novels. Miller's story begins when forever is about to come crashing down in a flaming heap. The aforementioned cantankerous Yorkshireman is actually a fisherman named Asher, and the titular Innocent Mage. Through the manipulations of a secret society of Olken wizards, he's thrown together with the Doranen Prince Gar who, despite his sorcerous heritage, is as magical as a rock. As the intrigue warms up, Miller takes the unusual step of dropping the Evil Wizard in amongst the rest of the cast, unbeknownst to them but beknownst to the reader, and making him a POV character. Which is where I switched off the first time through. My mistake.
At the end of book one, I was sure Miller had written herself into a corner from which the inevitable trajectory of book two could be readily extrapolated. Wrong. Her "out" is a blatant plot contrivance but this reader was so pleased to have their expectations defied, that I happily overlooked it. (Morg's dastardly plans are temporarily unravelled by a simple accident, which takes him out of the action until it's convenient to the plot to have him back on his feet again.)
It's actually quite refreshing to see an All-Powerful Evil Wizard completely bollocks something up. In fact (he says without a trace of shame), Morg aligns pretty closely with my theoretical recipe for an interesting wizard.(1) By giving him his own point-of-view, Miller succeeds in making him human, rather than a merely abstract threat. He's also incompetent, undead and his name has a cool "or" sound in it. He's completely obsessed with avenging himself on the lover who jilted him and led the Doranen refugees to Lur. Morg's not quite weird enough to completely break free of the standard Evil Wizard mould, but he is a real person. That said, while Morg's certainly present, his character is a curious absence from the slightly rushed thishappenedandthenthishappenedandatthesametimethiswasalsohappening action of the finale.
All of Miller's cast are fantasy archetypes (if not stereotypes): the Country Bumpkin with Secret Powers, the Good Prince with an Embarrassing Curse (or Secret or Disability), the Ambitious and Unscrupulous Lord, the Snobbish Family Retainer with a Heart of Gold, and the Good Witch Whose Ruthless Manipulations Are at War with Her Womanly Desires. Most of them play their roles to the scenery-chewing hilt—not so far as to be camp or self-referential, but Miller is plainly enjoying the stock actors of the genre. This is generally entertaining for the reader, too, although some of the comic relief is a little laboured. Another small criticism is of a certain lack of growth in the characters. Most are still playing the same roles at the end as they were at the beginning.
While Miller's plot, too, is a standard fantasy template, she's not afraid to pull the rug out from under her readers or knock off major characters à la George R.R. Martin. And when the major crisis hits, it happens far enough from the end that you're uncertain for much of the remaining duration how it will all play out. The writing, on the other hand, occasionally leaves a little to be desired, particularly in the matter of exposition. For one example:
"Oh aye," Old Hemp assured them. "Barl's wall ain't invisible, like the spells sunk deep in the horizon-wide reef that stops all boats entering the calmer waters between coral and coast."
Not exactly naturalistic dialogue, methinks. And, as the story approaches its climax, the dialogue from the Good Wizards sometimes gets a bit cringeworthy. (But, seriously, what can you expect from Good Wizards?)
Something Miller does very well is keep her story and world from escaping her control. She's a first time novelist, but an experienced writer (a playwright and freelance journalist), and I think that shows in how she's set up her story. Very little is extraneous to the plot, every scene keeps things rolling forward. While much of the first book is devoted to setting up the reader's knowledge and expectations for book two, it certainly doesn't feel like it when you're reading it. Between page 541 of the book and the climax fifty-or-so pages later, there's space for a book three, where The Heroes Gather their Forces in Exile for the Final Confrontation While The World Goes to Hell in a Handbasket Around Them and if You Thought Things Were Desperate in Book Two, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet. Credit to the author, I reckon, for not going there. And credit to the publisher for showing the same restraint.
Lur, too, is manageably small. In some ways, it's a little too cute—certain aspects of the geography made the nitpicker in me a bit twitchy. I should really see someone about it, most readers probably wouldn't be too bothered, but anyway:
It takes about two weeks to cross Lur in a small royal caravan, travelling at a (presumably) leisurely pace. This could make it as small as about 250 miles across its longest axis—about the size of Maine or Ireland. Lur is bordered on three sides by sea and a coral reef and on the fourth by mountains. Most of the coastline consists of sheer cliffs. Of the world beyond Lur, the reader is offered only a single, brief glimpse and Morg's world-conquering demonic armies remain an off-stage threat.
But here are the buts: If this is the last corner of the world unravaged by Morg and his minions, that implies a scenario not unlike Day of the Dead, so it's surprising that Lur's defences aren't under constant pressure. Furthermore, all effort within Lur is bent towards maintaining Barl's Wall across the mountains while the reef's magical defences apparently take care of themselves. This seems arse-about to me because, while a coral reef on that kind of scale is certainly a hazard, it's generally less of an actual barrier than a range of tall spiky mountains. And if the spells on the reef aren't maintained, what's stopping Morg from patiently unpicking them for six hundred years? Besides which, if he can create demonic hordes on a whim, what's to stop him from making winged demons to fly over the Wall, or digging ones to burrow under it?
Overall, Miller doesn't worry herself too much about having a consistent and coherent theory of magic and its implications. Stuff just happens like, well, magic. Aside from the vexed question of Lur's defences, there are only a couple of places where this generates inconsistencies, particularly between Morg's offhanded demonstrations of Evil Power and his relatively feeble performances elsewhere.
While Miller presumably knows a lot about horses, having worked as a stud groom and written for equestrian magazines, she doesn't let this bog her down, either, and the horses just kind of run as far as the plot needs them to. While there are a couple of places where you might stop and think, "Can you actually do that with a horse?", it's all vague enough to possibly be possible, without being vague enough for you to lose your sense of place. She doesn't (for example) do anything nearly so daft as unloading her steeds from a ship after months at sea and immediately forming them up, prancing and shiny, for a cavalry charge. (Seen that one elsewhere).
At the end of the day, none of these quibbles stopped me from enjoying these books.(2) It sounds condescending to preface any critical opinion of Kingmaker, Kingbreaker with "judged for what it is." And it smacks of snobbery to label it a "stock" or "pop" or "mass-market" fantasy. But hell, Miller has plainly set out to write a story that readers of heroic fantasy will devour. She hasn't pushed any boundaries, but she's got the balance of familiarity and newness about right. And she's given hope to everyone out there with a hankering to read (or write) a fantasy epic of less than a gazillion volumes.
Most importantly, Kingmaker, Kingbreaker is fun.