KE Mills

Rogue Agent, book 1

HarperVoyager (2008)

ISBN: 9780732286040

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was originally published in February 2008)

The Accidental Sorcerer turned out to be a delightful surprise. The first twenty pages seemed to be setting up a rather ordinary, derivative novel without much originality. But then the author hit her stride, and the novel turned into a lively, energetic, original romp that at times made me laugh out loud. By the end, I was already anticipating with pleasure future instalments in the series.

The Sorcerer of the title is Gerald Dunwoody, a depressingly ordinary young man, with a depressingly average level of magical talent. Resigned to his own ordinariness, Gerald has accepted his status as a Third Level magician, and with it a job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Thaumaturgy. Unfortunately, on one of his first jobs things go hideously wrong and he contributes to a devastating explosion at a major wand factory – and creates a huge scandal. Luckily Gerald isn’t entirely friendless, and he manages to get a job in another country as Royal Court Wizard. Given his lowly qualifications, Gerald has a sense that there must be some catch in the job; but it’s a job, and the title alone should give him enough status to eventually rebuild a career in his native land.

Unfortunately (that word applies to a great deal of Gerald’s life), the catch is a massive one – an insane King who has been secretly stealing his Court Wizard’s powers, killing them in the process. Naturally that’s not all Gerald has to deal with; there’s also a political and religious crisis likely to lead to war with a neighbouring country. You’d think the royal family might help rein in the errant King Lional, but no; sister Melissande has recently been made Prime Minister, and her acerbic tongue hasn’t been softened by the workload associated with replacing an entire Privy Council. Younger brother Rupert is quite dotty, and only concerned with his butterflies. Gerald does have one staunch ally, his talking bird, Reg; but her bad temper usually means she causes more trouble than she ever helps soothe.

The plot wasn’t all that complicated, but there were two great joys in this novel: the strong characterisation and the smart, well-aimed humor that ran throughout. The plot was, however, well worked out and well-paced; the story didn’t flag at any point and everything made sense and was consistent with the “rules” of this world.

The humour was a particular delight to me; humour is always difficult to pull off, and many authors seem to think that the more intelligent the humour is, the less likely it is to succeed. Much of the humour in The Accidental Sorcerer was verbal, and came out particularly in the conversations of the characters. It’s smart and fast, and often acerbic, and if this was a movie you’d have to pay attention to make sure you didn’t miss anything. It was one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages – as I said, in places it made me laugh out loud. It was also consistent. Once the novel got properly started, there wasn’t a dull moment and the humour ran throughout the book.

To balance this, Mills has created strong characters that experience a range of emotions, including some desperately sad ones. The strength of the characters’ emotions and experiences provides a solid core to the novel that saves it from being a piece of fluff. While Gerald wasn’t the character I enjoyed most, his experiences anchor the novel and provide some genuinely agonising moments. He goes through a real journey of growth and of developing greater self-awareness; by the end of the novel he isn’t the man we originally met. He’s far more interesting and someone you’d be much more likely to want to invite to a dinner party.

Melissande was for me the most lively of the characters; sharp and sarcastic but vulnerable too; harassed and busy but always able to be gentle with her mentally challenged brother. Her exchanges with others are the source of much of the humor I enjoyed so much.

All of the characters are realistic and strong. I was particularly impressed by Mills’ ability to make a character well-rounded without having to give a potted history of each character. We do glean a fair bit of background information about most characters, but Mills salts this information throughout the story, generally in quite subtle ways. Mills also spends time on characters you might not expect to get a lot of attention; notably the political enemies who may embroil Gerald in a war. Rather unexpectedly, we get their point of view and they’re made into interesting and real characters in only a chapter or two.

This ability to have a strong impact without a lot of verbiage is a hallmark of Mills’ writing. This is an easy novel to read. It’s well-paced, and the writing is to the point and lively. The plot isn’t the most complicated ever, but it’s convincing, and Mills doesn’t bury it in wordiness – it’s not a sparse novel, there’s plenty of information, but you won’t find yourself wading through hundreds of pages of descriptions either. I liked the writing style; Mills has a light and easy touch, and manages to be distinctive without the writing itself ever being so obtrusive that it pulls you out of the story

This is volume one of the Rogue Agent series, and the back of the book already advertises two more volumes. This isn’t a trilogy; it appears more like a series of crime novels, where recurring characters face a different plot and problem in each novel. I look forward to the next instalment, and hope it’ll have the same verve and energy as The Accidental Sorcerer.

I’d recommend this novel enthusiastically to a very wide audience. It’ll go down well with those who like clever humour, well written fantasies, good characterisation, or good writing. And although an adult novel, many younger readers would also enjoy it. The Accidental Sorcerer is an excellent novel and deserves to find a wide audience.