After Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter I found myself in a void of good fantasy books. Thus, I was skeptical whether Trudi Canavan’s first trilogy was able to fill my expectations. However, the first paragraphs instantly drew me into the story. Now, eight years and ten re-reads later, I’ve reached a point at which I can discuss the books’ strengths and weaknesses despite my love for them. Being a fan doesn’t mean to switch off my brains.
Each year the King drives out beggars and vagrants from the streets of Imardin into the slums with the help of the city guard and the Magicians’ Guild. Each year the magicians are fought by groups of rebellious youths. Sixteen-year-old Sonea joins her friends in their fight and discovers that she has magical abilities which are believed to be restricted to nobility. When the Guild finds out, a hunt through the slums takes its course. Sonea who is hidden by her friends doesn’t know that her powers are growing dangerous if she doesn’t learn to control them, and believes that the Guild wants to kill her.
Though the story starts with the well-worn cliche of a young orphaned protagonist with exceptional powers who later meets a wise and fatherly mentor, the story is refreshingly told and broaches topics like social injustice quite thoroughly and sensitive. The Magicians’ Guild is a story about overcoming mutual prejudices and learning to trust.
The Magicians’ Guild is set in a fictional world in which magic is the only fantasy element. There are no elves, dwarfs or dragons which I found very refreshing. However, Canavan designed the world with its own flora and fauna and with unique attention to details.
Apart from Imardin, the capital of Kyralia and home of the Magicians’ Guild, where the story takes place, there are other lands mentioned we will hopefully learn about in the next books. Kyralia is part of the Allied Lands together with Elyne, Lonmar, Lan and Vin. There is also a sixth country, Sachaka, which is not part of the Alliance.
The story is told from the perspectives of four different characters in nearly equal amount: Sonea, Cery, and the two magicians Rothen and Dannyl. Though the first three remind of the typical cliche model (the orphaned girl with special powers, the thief boy and the wise and fatherly mentor) they are unique in character traits, secrets and past and like the minor characters they are designed benign. Each character has a unique humour which shows in their dynamics with other characters. Especially Sonea and Dannyl are easy to connect to, while Rothen is an easy-to-love character. I only struggled to bond with Cery which is less due to the fact that he isn’t likeable but that it was easier to connect to the magicians’ world than to the world of thieves. Because Canavan did a pretty good job to describe Imardin’s underground, I rather blame myself. It’s easier to connect to something you are familiar with.
Those four protagonists mature differently throughout the book. Sonea experiences the largest character growth, followed by Cery and Dannyl while Rothen’s progress is negligible. Sonea struggles with accepting her magic and learning to trust the magicians. The latter almost fails when she and Cery become victims of a scheming magician. Cery transforms from the little pick-pocket into the helper of a powerful Thief and Dannyl shows negotiation skills in dealing with the underground leaders which earns him a position as ambassador.
Though fluent, Trudi Canavan’s writing isn’t especially outstanding, the language is simple, but vivid making the book easy to read. In places, the language is jolty and words and phrases are repeated annoyingly often, sometimes even within the same paragraph. When reading the book for the first time, those passages escaped my notice, but became more prominent with every re-read.
Also, the book has lengths (e.g. the search for Sonea). After the middle, the book again looses pace until the last 100 pages or so. Though in the middle of the book a new part of the action begins and characters and their relationships are reset, the story becomes a little boring. Canavan uses these lengthy passages to introduce the reader into the worlds of magicians and thieves as well as by to develop the inter-character relationships. Yet, this change between fast pacing and lengthy world- and character building causes an imbalance in the narration which could have been avoided by adding more tension to the lengthy passages.
All storylines except the background plot are concluded making The Magicians’ Guild almost a stand-alone. Hints for the big background plot are sown with subtlety and most will only be understood by reading the complete trilogy.
Though I don’t mind the above mentioned cliches, I do find them not very original which is disappointing in some sense.
Apart from that there are several continuity errors:
The magicians know Sonea’s name when they catch her. If they learned her name from the thieves, I would at least have wished for a short explanation to avoid letting it look like an obvious mistake.
When Sonea receives the book with Rothen’s message it seems as if the Guild has made sure that the book is handed to her. When Sonea has to leave her hideout, the magicians find this very book and Rothen and other magicians speculate how it could have made its way from the Guild to the slums.
Sonea and Cery leave the slums through a tunnel which is flooded in irregular intervals. In later scenes throughout the trilogy less dangerous underground passages between city and slums are used. So why don’t they use one of these?
Sonea is unable to hear the magician’s mind communication but can sense them searching her with her minds. Without an explanation this feels as if the logic is bent for the story’s sake.
Canavan invests a great deal in character development and working out their personal issues. She spends much time on Sonea learning to trust the magicians and dealing with the traumatic events from the North Square. But when Cery commits his first murder there is nothing of an inner conflict or a notable change in his personality.
The presentation of the big background story comes all of a sudden in the final chapter, where the reader is confronted with certain truths which are hardly connected to the previous plot: Akkarin, the Guild leader uses black magic which is forbidden. Together with the subtle hints I mentioned above it all makes total sense when having read book three, however, here it would have improved the story if Canavan had spent a few scenes in introducing Akkarin as character like e.g. via his best friend Lorlen who discovers Akkarin’s secret. Instead, she neglects Akkarin except from a handful of short appearances and focuses his characterization on how mysterious he is. I will come back to that point in my review of book two where this will become important for discussing Lorlen’s character.
The number of existing magicians is ridiculously small. About eighty live in the Guild and only few in the city and the country because the king wants them to have an eye on each other. However, this doesn’t hold for the magicians from other countries; when they graduate, they return to their home countries. Now here’s the problem: Every half a year, the guild takes in about ten novices, half of them Kyralian, half of them from the other countries from the Alliance. Assuming that magicians become at least 75 years, we would have 2x10x60 = 1200 magicians with an average intake age of 15. Given the ratio of Kyralian and foreign novices there would be about 600 magicians constantly living in the Guild. Toward The High Lord the numbers will be corrected to about 300 magicians which still doesn’t match this calculation.
However, most irritated I was by how Canavan explained why Sonea has been able to unleash her powers because this is a major flaw in her worldbuilding and the magic system: It’s been 500 years since a magician has unleashed his/her magic without help. Usually, the Guild recruits novices at an age before their magic becomes large enough to surface. But: They only take in children from nobility (the other Allied Lands have different conditions, but they don’t send all gifted children to the Guild, either). They ignore a pretty large fraction of population though there are many who are gifted as we will learn in book three. Thus, by mere statistic, there have to be quite a lot children whose magic surfaces on its own and since we learn what happens if they aren’t taught to control their powers, they would have been noticed. Or Sonea is a statistical outlier, meaning that her powers are very strong. She is stronger than the average magician, but for being a statistical outlier her powers must be comparable to those of a black magician, which clearly isn’t the case.
This isn’t only irritating from a logical point of view, it also makes Sonea too special by giving the impression that she has some sort of super powers she doesn’t have. Especially in regard of the whole trilogy this is neither credible nor thought out.
Me and translations is a quite hateful relationship for translations tend to mess up the true meaning of words and phrases or make beautiful passages look ridiculous. Words of different meaning were translated into the same German word bereaving the language of its diversity. In my opinion, Michaela Link did a poor job on translation The Black Magician. Most annoying was that ’to chuckle’ is translated with ’kichern’ which actually means ’to giggle’. Especially in case of male characters this was unbearable. I recommend reading the books in English not only because of avoiding giggling characters but because slum slang deteriorates into colloquial speech in German. Also, the titles of the books and the whole trilogy, except book two, are translated thoughtless pretending that Sonea is the main character which isn’t true because the other characters contribute comparably large amounts to the story.
The Magicians’ Guild is a flawed and cliche-packed but yet entertaining first installment of a fantasy trilogy with amiable characters. Though the story isn’t particularly outstanding, it is solid and, apart from a few lengths and logical errors, well-paced. Thus, I give 4 stars of 5.