A Kingmaker, Kingbreaker novel
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
The Kingmaker, Kingbreaker novels (The Innocent Mage and Innocence Lost) were Karen Miller’s debut novels; extremely assured and well written novels. She has since gone on to demonstrate repeatedly that it wasn’t a fluke – she is a highly skilled writer. However, A Blight of Mages is not her best work. The essential problem is that A Blight of Mages is a prequel to the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology, and as a result many readers will have a very good sense from page one of what will happen. This robs the narrative of a lot of its momentum, and although the novel is still interesting, it isn’t exactly riveting.
A Blight of Mages focuses on Barl Linden and Morgan Danfey and their relationship. Those who’ve read the other novels will know that these two are towering figures of history, and will know in broad terms what happens between them and what impact it has on their society. However, assuming you have picked up a book labelled “a Kingmaker, Kingbreaker novel” without having read any of the others, the plot goes like this: Barl is a powerful mage, but because she is socially inferior she is denied the highest levels of training and has only limited opportunities to use her power. She chafes under these restrictions and believes the powerful Council of Mages is abusing its power by reinforcing the social strata that mean more than magical power or talent.
Morgan Danfey, meanwhile, is the youngest mage ever appointed to the Council. He too is a powerful mage, driven by ambition, pricked by a demanding father, haunted by grief. He senses that a terrible danger threatens their country (Dorana), but can’t identify what it is or when it will strike. Accordingly, he secretly experiments with forbidden magics, believing they will be needed to defend against the unspecified threat. When Morgan meets Barl, the two are instantly attracted despite the social gulf that lies between them. And with neither of them willing to accept the rules others have established to set boundaries on the use of power, the stage is set for every rule Dorana society is based on to be broken.
The novel demonstrates some of the strengths Miller has brought to other novels. Notably, her characters are strong and engaging and will quickly enlist readers in their cause. Most readers will find themselves drawn to more than one of the characters, and will be cheering them on – even though in some cases you know with certainty that it just isn’t going to end well. Miller focuses particularly on Barl and Morgan, making these two characters more fully rounded, painting their backgrounds, and drawing out more of their motivations than in the other Kingmaker novels. This is interesting for readers of the other novels, and will be key to the enjoyment of new readers, who are likely to find themselves deeply involved with these two.
However, as usual Miller doesn’t stint her secondary characters either, and the novel is populated by many vivid characters who are distinctive and entirely believable. We care about what happens to them, too.
Plotwise – well, here’s the big difference for new readers and those already familiar with this world. Familiar readers will find the plot has little momentum; they will know too much of what happens to find this riveting, and Miller is not able to use the idea that some things get distorted over time to introduce anything very unexpected. For these readers, there will be a sense of inevitability throughout the book. For me at least, this robbed the novel of a certain level of intrigue. However, new readers are likely to find the plot much stronger and a much stronger pull to keep reading. There will probably still be a sense that the novel lacks a spectacular climax, but for these readers the novel will come to a dramatic and satisfying close.
The only real problem with this novel is its status as a prequel. Before Miller started writing, she was hemmed in to a large extent by things that had to happen. This has clearly shaped her plot – in fact, her plot is almost entirely dictated by the previously written novels. Within those constraints, Miller has written a novel that is entertaining and interesting, but it lacks suspense and doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the previously created world.
If you have not read the other Kingmaker, Kingbreaker novels, then you’ll likely enjoy this a lot. The characters are powerful and interesting, and the plot will provide you with incentives to keep reading and find out what happens. However, if you’ve read the other novels, this novel will have little suspense. Although Miller has tried to introduce a few surprises, they are very small, and don’t have all that much impact. It’s not a bad novel, and you’ll likely find some interest in having the historical background referred better fleshed out. But it won’t keep you up nights wanting to find out what happens next – you’ll already know.