Review: The Reluctant Mage
Morg is not dead. Rafe is in trouble. Asher is sick. Danthe has given up. Lur is dying. By the end of THE PRODIGAL MAGE everything has gone wrong and it looks pretty bleak.
The only one left to save them is mousy Dennie, the young woman too timid to do anything. Or is she? She’s spent the last months caring for her comatose father and taking over the household responsibilities of her deteriorating mother–and she’s the only one who believes that Rafe is still alive, and that he needs help only she can provide. Dennie is not the girl she used to be before her world changed, and she’s beginning to realize her new role in it.
At the same time, across the blight in Old Dorana, Rafe and Arlin have discovered that Morg, while not to his full powers, isn’t dead either, and is gathering his strength to begin anew his campaign of horrors.
PRODIGAL was the set-up novel, where we got to know the characters, the setting, the back story, and the dilemma. It was fairly predictable, with a cliffhanger ending, the plot not much more than building up a nebulous impending doom.
Fortunately, THE RELUCTANT MAGE doesn’t have the problems of its predecessor. It’s faster-paced, the characters more interesting and engaging, and Karen Miller takes full advantage of PRODIGAL’s set-up to move the story forward toward a rewarding conclusion. If you spent the time to read the first book, it’s definitely worth it to finish the second in the Fisherman’s Children duology.
In RELUCTANT we get into the heads of three different main characters, departing from those in PRODIGAL. There’s the mousy Dennie, who finds the courage necessary to do the hard thing. We spend some time in arrogant Arlin’s head–Rafe’s boyhood nemesis–who is all mixed up with conflicting wants, yet is ultimately a good guy. We finally really get to see the world beyond Lur, where we meet Prince Ewan who is determined to do what he can to protect his own people from the horrible life they lived before Asher ‘killed’ Morg twenty years ago. And it will take Rafe, Arlin, and Dennie–the three strongest mages alive–working together to even have a small chance at saving everyone from bondage. It’s a story in black and white: the heroes are likable and the bad guy is truly disgustingly evil.
While the setting is your standard fantasy world and the magic nothing beyond the usual, Miller still manages to give it flavor and interest. The prose flows smoothly, the PoV switching effortlessly between characters. Miller mixes in humor to keep the bleakness from becoming over-wrought; plus the romance between two main characters helps lighten the tone of the story, even if you can see their impending coupledom coming from a hundred pages away. The character arcs are well-developed and satisfying, if sometimes heavy-handed. The dialogue is quick-witted, and while most of it involves arguing, at least it’s not at the annoying level of PRODIGAL’s constant bickering.
Yet, for all its strengths, RELUCTANT feels more geared toward female audiences because of the way the story is told, the romantic elements, and the focus on relationships among the main characters, which is too bad because it wouldn’t have taken much tweaking to make it appeal to a wider audience. And while it is faster paced, it still could have moved quicker–in fact the duology would have been better as a tighter written standalone novel. Other problems? Miller’s sense of distance and time aren’t always clear or consistent; foreshadowing lacks subtlety, which makes it predictable; and the main characters keep secrets from each other without obvious motivations, the explanations coming too late and petty.
If you read and liked the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology then you’ll like PRODIGAL and RELUCTANT because Miller is anything if consistent with her writing. If you haven’t read any Miller, and if you like the standard fantasy fare–heavier on the romance/relationship/character development–with lively prose, I’d recommended starting with THE INNOCENT MAGE.
Recommended Age: 14+ for violence.
Language: A few instances, but otherwise mild.
Violence: It’s more graphic and intense than PRODIGAL; but compared to other violent fantasy novels, it’s more in the moderate to low range.
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