Book 2, Traitor Spy
Reviewed by Helen Merrick
The Rogue is book two of the Traitor Spy Trilogy, which follows Canavan’s first series, The Black Magician. Given the close connections with these earlier books, it is impossible to talk about The Rogue without some spoilers for the first book, The Ambassador’s Mission, as well as the Black Magician books, and also the standalone prequel, The Magicians Apprentice. That said, it is possible to come to the Traitor Spy trilogy without having read the previous volumes, although given the rich history built up in these books, it certainly adds to the experience.
The Traitor Spy trilogy opens twenty years after the events of the Black Magician sequence, and follows many of the main characters from the first books. Sonea, the unlikely magician’s novice pulled from the slums has taken her place as one of the High Lords of the Magician’s Guild, and one of only two magicians who can practice the rediscovered black magic. The books also chart the life of her son, the recently graduated magician Lorkin (who was conceived right at the end of the previous sequence). Other characters from the first trilogy return in key roles – Cery the Thief, who was Sonea’s childhood friend from the slums, Rothen, her earliest protector and teacher, and Dannyl, who once again takes on a job as Ambassador. Along with Lorkin, Dannyl’s Ambassadorial role takes him this time into Sachaka, the country whose attempted war on Kyralia was thwarted by Sonea and Lorkin’s father Akkarin in The Black Magician books.
Many things have changed in Kyralia, not least seen in the moves to open negotiations between the two previously warring countries. Black magic is at least cautiously accepted, and the Guild is now open to any who have magical skills, including those ‘lowies’ from outside the upper class of families. Yet not all is well in Imardin, home of the Guild, as many of the Thieves who run the seedier side of the city’s trade and pleasure are killed off, and evidence emerges of a rogue magician on the loose. Meanwhile, in Sachaka, Lorkin’s assistant duties catapult him into danger as he survives a murder attempt only to be taken into hiding by a mysterious group of women known as the Traitors. By the opening of The Rogue, Lorkin is living in the hidden home of the Traitors (a matriarchal society, whose origins are detailed in The Magician’s Apprentice), and Sonea races to find the rogue magician.
As even this brief synopsis suggests, The Rogue does not lack for intrigue, action, and a few surprises. Canavan’s plotting is satisfyingly convoluted, but easily followed, her characters are strong, well drawn and likeable, and the pace never lets up as we shift between the points of view of half a dozen characters throughout the books. What I really appreciate in Canavan’s books is the way she tries to go beyond the more formulaic characterisations and settings that can be common in this kind of high fantasy. In particular, she pays careful attention to race, gender, class and sexuality, exploring the cultural differences that underlie social mores. While women can, for example, practice magic and thus hold certain kinds of power in Kyralia, a much more restrictive patriarchal system holds sway in Sachaka. In contrast, the breakaway society of the Traitors is fiercely protective of the rights and status of women, almost to the detriment of men (at least to Lorkin’s eyes). Similarly, while homosexuality is socially taboo in Kyralia, in the earlier series a relationship develops between Dannyl and his friend Tayend, and in The Rogue female homosexuality is explored, if initially in rather a fraught fashion.
One of the reasons I appreciate these facets of Canvan’s series is that I actually avoided her books for a long time because I assumed they would be much more traditional, male-focussed quest stories. Don’t let the covers or titles mislead you, these books are quietly radical in their way, with great female (and male) characters, and nuanced considerations of politics and power. They are also a great read. I raced through The Rogue, just as I did the first trilogy and the prequel. I certainly look forward to seeing how Canavan brings the trilogy to a close with the next book.