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The Magicians’ Guild: Review

July 13, 2010

The Magicians’ Guild (The Black Magician Trilogy, Book 1)
Trudi Canavan
Eos, January 2004 $7.99 384 pages

It’s been a really long time since I read a fantasy novel. Not sure if I ever consciously rejected or went off the genre, the way Sassymonkey, one of my favorite book bloggers, has. Just hadn’t been reading much of it, or even prowling those sections of bookstore and library shelves. The considerable exception being urban fantasy, particularly that with a YA bent. Teenagers having magic in ordinary worlds? Yes please, voraciously! Wizards and made-up worlds? Eh. Not really, lately.

The Magician’s Guild came highly recommended by a good friend, and was exactly what I like in fantasy, mostly a keen sense of history driving the conflict. Mages, drawn from the upper classes, do the king’s bidding, by helping the king keep order when the townsfolk have gotten rebellious. The action starts in the poorer parts of town, with common folk being evicted, to reduce crowding in the city. Understandably, they throw rocks at the mages, who have magic shields, and nothing to fear from townsfolk.

Or so they think. Until Sonea throws a rock right through a wizard’s shield.
Nothing I like better than a good upset of the status quo!
Except maybe some insights into the structure and culture of magic in a fantasy world it- how is it learned? Who gets to learn it? What kinds of magic are there and who can do it?

The Magician’s Guild delivered that beautifully.  Also, because it shifted perspective between the fugitive Sonea, and the wizards pursuing her and trying to figure out what she meant, it was more nuanced than a classic good and evil fantasy setup. Each side’s assumptions get in the way of making the best choices. I particularly like how Sonea’s mistrust of the wizards played out in the book’s later stages, and how some of the wizards reacted to her, with empathy or puzzlement or contempt.

The book was so good, in fact, that I’m impatient to get my hands on the sequel, and I can think of nothing to criticize except the structure of Canavan’s created language. Have used the cut tag to spare you my quasi-anthro-linguistic nitpicking.

Even though the action got going well, woven with history and context that felt authentic rather than faux epic, I got hung up on specific words in the fantasy language itself, trying to decode “poisonous faren” or what “bol” was. Nitpicky? Yes. I admit it.

I felt like the balance of language was off, and that so many new words should have had more glossing in the text or better context, to help me visualize. I also felt like tacking in foreign words to create the sense of otherness took away some opportunities for Canavan to create evocative descriptions of the genuine strangeness and creativity of, say the flavor of “bol” or whether a “cerenyi” rodent was bigger than a rat. I acknowledge that this is unnecessarily nitpicky on my part, and a byproduct of having let a few bad fantasy novels put me off the genre for a while, so I’ve lost my “ear” for created language. Because, good lord, I’m asking a lot of a writer, who’s trying to introduce a world’s history, magic studies and culture, and get a good chase plot going!

Part of my resistance to a lot of fantasy writing is to the nomenclature and language. If it looks like you let your cat walk on your keyboard, or tacked a few gratuitous L’s and Y’s onto your nephew’s name, I’m going to raise an eyebrow. Or worse yet, badly bastardized Tolkein. (I may cause many of my friends to despair the fact that I never finished reading Tolkien, but even though I don’t adore his books, I respect his place in the genre.) I prize conscientious world-building, and good attention to cultural systems. Where some might say it’s derivative, I enjoy a sly sense of decoding the cultures the author has borrowed, liberally, to create story and place. (Yes, Guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey, I’m looking at you.)

As The Magicians’ Guild got going, and I got a sense of slang uses, and more importantly, the excellent characterizations and culture-building, I was more willing to give Canavan’s profuse made-up language a chance. Yes, despite the fact that I came to enjoy the book, and the characters, I’m being a stickler about the language structure. I’d blame a certain linguistics grad student for getting me so hung up on these things but… he’s the one who lent me the book!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2010 3:27 pm

    I keep seeing this one and wondering if I should read it. Perhaps I really should!

    (Also; what most fantasy authors seem to miss is that Tolkien was an actual, honest-to-G-d linguist. He wasn’t just stringing syllables together to sound cool…the man invented his own language. I realize not every author can be expected to do that, but some people seem to put more of an effort into it than others)

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