Trudi Canavan

The Magician’s Guild, Harper Voyager (2001), ISBN: 9780732270957

The Novice, Harper Voyager (2002), ISBN: 9780732272364

The High Lord, Harper Voyager (2003), ISBN: 9780732272302

Reviewed by Kathryn Linge (this review was originally published in 2009)

The Black Magician Trilogy revolves around Sonea, a girl born in the slums of the city of Imardin, who discovers that she has magical abilities normally only found (or at least only looked for) in the upper classes. She discovers them during the annual Purge, when magicians from the Guild gather together to purge the city of the homeless by order of the King of Kyralia. Angry at how her friends and family are being treated, Sonea throws a stone at the magicians’ shield, and is amazed when it passes through the magical barrier and knocks a magician unconscious. The Guild are immediately concerned that such strong ability has developed naturally in a slum dweller, partly because no commoner has been accepted to be a Guild magician in hundreds of years, but also because if Sonea cannot learn to control her power, it will destroy her and possibly a good part of the city as well.

A large part of The Magician’s Guild, book one of the trilogy, follows Sonea’s attempts to hide from the magicians, aided by her friend Cery and the Thieves, who see advantage in having access to a magician not controlled by the Guild. And, to be honest, I found the book fairly predictable and unexciting. The action remains static for much of the novel. After rousing the Guild’s interest, Sonea hides throughout the city. The Guild’s need to find her before she (effectively) explodes with power is not clearly established – there’s no real sense of urgency and so we have a storyline where the magicians nearly find her on a couple of occasions, but she avoids them, finds a new spot to hide, and the cycle continues. By the time, Sonea has been found by the Guild, and the danger of her uncontrolled power is finally explained, I was lost to the rest of the story. Don’t get me wrong, The Magician’s Guild is competently written and the text is far from stodgy. It just wasn’t very engaging.I also felt that the characters in The Magician’s Guild were underdeveloped, much more so than in the two books that followed. While the reader gets a fairly developed picture of Sonea, the resident ‘nemesis’ of book one, Fergun, is unlikeable but a buffoon, and even the ‘good’ magicians, Rothen and Dannyl, seem flat. The trilogy in general, and The Magician’s Guild in particular, also suffer a little from ‘insert word here’ syndrome – i.e. take a normal, everyday household item from ‘our’ world and call it something different in Kyralia. For example, beer becomes bol, raka/suka is probably coffee, and sumi may very well be tea. This took the edge off Canavan’s worldbuilding early on, which was a shame as the back-story that evolves over the trilogy was otherwise interesting and believable.

Having not really enjoyed The Magician’s Guild, I started The Novice with a little trepidation, however was very pleased to find it much more engrossing. In The NoviceSonea has joined in the Guild, and is learning to control and apply her magic along with all the other novices. This book has a slight “Harry Potter” feel to it, as Sonea (and the reader) learns how magic works in Canavan’s world. More promisingly, however, Canavan throws a couple of curve balls halfway through the book, causing the confrontation I’d expected at the end of the book to fall well and truly by the wayside. A twist is always good.

The Novice also expands outwards from Kyralia, to other nearby states, as Dannyl is promoted to Ambassador to neighbouring Elyne, and secretly ordered to research some ancient magical knowledge. This additional storyline does add depth to a number of the characters, Dannyl in particular, as well as advancing the overall plot.

Following on from The Novice, book three, The High Lord, further advances the action away from Kyralia, as the real threat to the Magician’s Guild becomes clear and, of course, the final showdown takes place. Again, there are a few twists in this storyline, though I’m still unsure whether I think Sonea’s final love interest was a brilliant or a boring choice.

Canavan has attempted to give her trilogy a social conscience. Poverty is a major theme; Sonea is from the slums and the contrast between her life there and her life in the Guild (both in terms of comforts and amenities, and also the attitudes of those she meets) is a fairly obvious device for exploring this. Class prejudice is also examined in a superficial way – many magicians believe that slum-dwellers should not be allowed into the Guild or be magicians and Sonea’s treatment by the other novices in The Novice reflects this. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Canavan makes comment on sexuality and homophobia using the different attitudes of the countries Dannyl visits. While, again, the message conveyed is a fairly simple one, and some of the countries (and their strict religions) seem quite caricatured, it was an interesting way of developing Dannyl’s character. Making Sonea a woman also extends her ‘otherness’ in a society that is largely ruled by men. (Although, I’m assuming the events of the final pages of The High Lord are not a social commentary on men’s attitudes to sex, but rather a plot device to keep the option open for more books!).

Canavan writes cleanly, and the books are fast-paced and easy to read. Big Fat Fantasy™ is not generally my thing. However, based on this trilogy, I’d happily read Canavan’s other works (though I probably won’t be rushing to buy them). While I still think The Magician’s Guild is relatively weak, Canavan has, on the whole, written an accessible and fresh trilogy – and there’s no denying that she has been enormously successful with it. The action across the trilogy does fit relatively neatly into three ‘acts’ (as required). Perhaps the problem with The Magician’s Apprentice is that the story required padding out to make it of similar length to the following books.

Given that Trudi Canavan published The Magician’s Guild, the first book in the Black Magician Trilogy, back in 2001, this review is somewhat late to the party. However, a prequel, The Magician’s Apprentice, was published earlier this year and a trilogy sequel is soon to follow. I for one will be interested to see how far Canavan can spin the Magician’s story (preferably without too much padding) and also see how she has developed as a writer in the last eight years.