With the end of The Wheel of Time coming soon, book two of The Stormlight Archive barely begun, and who knows how long to go before we see hide or hair of what’s next from Messrs. Martin and Rothfuss—not to mention when—epic fantasy fans looked to be at a loose end this winter.
Enter David Hair.
An award-winning writer born and raised and returned to roost in New Zealand after living for a time in Britain and India, Hair has eight books behind him already—four each across two discrete series known as The Aotearoa and The Return of Ravana—but you’d be forgiven, I think, for never having heard of ’em. I hadn’t, and I’m all for YA fantasy.
Hair’s ninth novel, however, is his first aimed at an adult audience, and Mage’s Blood is likely to find legions of receptive readers. Those who had imagined spending the coming season counting down the days till the arrival of A Memory of Light may take heart in the fact that there’s at least one epic worth investing in before the arrival of 2013. Hair’s The Moontide Quartet isn’t as yet the equal of any of the aforementioned sagas, but like The Way of Kings before it, it lays the foundation for a commanding fantasy narrative that is at once familiar and ambitious.
Welcome, one and all, to Urte!
“When Kore made this land, he made two great continents, separated by vast oceans, and he commanded his sister Luna to make those waters impassable, so that East should never meet West. Learned, noble, enlightened West and base, depraved, idolatrous East should never meet, under Sun or Moon — so it was written.
“But Meiros, an Ascendant too craven to join the liberation of Yuros from the Rimoni yoke, left the fellowship of the Three Hundred and built that cursed Bridge, and from that Bridge do all of our woes come.”
So proclaimeth the living saint Lucia Fasterius, with whose elevation Mage’s Blood begins. The mother of the Emperor in the West seems “intelligent, learned — kindly, even. But in her eyes something fanatic lurked, like a venomous snake.” This idea in particular proves pivotal to the narrative elements ahead, though the Mater-Imperia does a bang-up job of preparing readers in a more general sense, speaking as she does to what is clearly the quartet’s core conflict—between opposing beliefs and competing creeds, and the people caught in the crossfire—as well as introducing us to one of the opening act’s most fascinating characters.
The very man, Anton Meiros—an infamous mage—has lived a long, long life. Circa 927, which year this novel chronicles, he recalls the part he played in the rise of magic several centuries ago, when three hundred mere mortals ascended via a sacred ceremony that has since become the stuff of legend. More recently, Meiros sat on the sidelines of an ongoing holy war between the continents he himself connected when creating the Leviathan Bridge: a tidal gateway that opens for a brief period every twelve years.
This he did to facilitate trade. To encourage the commingling of cultures. Naive, no? Because of course, in the words of the Sultan of the city Kesh, “Some enemies come bearing weapons and uttering blasphemies and so you know them [but] worse are enemies who come with gifts and gracious deeds. You know them not as foes, until too late.” So it was that instead of swapping silks and spices and stories, the West waged a crusade, in response to which the East declared shihad. Already millions of lives have been lost to this conflict, and when the Leviathan Bridge opens again, millions more will be in the balance.
But after decades of regret, Meiros has finally divined a potential path to peace. His time is short, yet he foresees a way forward: he must father twins to an Antiopian bride. Monied beyond imagining, Meiros does what any rich idiot would: he buys one. Thus Ramita Ankesharan, all-dutiful daughter, is spirited away to become an initially unwilling wife, leaving her childhood sweetheart Kazim Makani broken, and open to insidious suggestion:
“Look around you, Kazim: this is a Hebb city, under the thumb of drunken whiteskins with less wit than the camel pulling this cart. How did this happen? Because Anton Meiros and his Ordo Costruo allowed it to happen. Because he refused to do what decency and righteousness demanded and drown the emperor’s legions. He continues to compound this treachery by not reversing that decision, not aiding the shihad. This evil, lecherous creature is rolling in the mountain of golf the emperor paid him for that betrayal.”
In this way, Kazim is fashioned into an assassin, with sights set on his former lover’s hated husband.
Between them, these three make up our primary perspectives, but there are others on the periphery. There’s Alaron Mercer, a would-be mage in training; Elena Anborn, a sleeper agent who has fallen for the family she was installed to destroy; and Elena’s manipulative spymaster Gurvon Gyle.
Mage’s Blood is unquestionably at its most affecting in the company of Meiros, Ramita and Kazim, but these others are yet purposeful perspectives. Gurvon gives us a glimpse of the Emperor’s affairs, whilst Elena allows similar insight into the upper echelons on the other side of the great divide, as well as starring in the book’s most thrilling set-piece. Last but not least, Alaron’s chapters outline The Moontide Quartet’s many-faceted magic system, in addition to illustrating another aspect of the fanaticism the living saint Lucia alludes to at the outset: the purity of one’s blood. Disappointingly, this boils down to conspiracy and discrimination against “half-bloods” and “mudskins.”
Harry Potter says hey!
As do an array of other stories. Indeed, seasoned fantasy readers will be hard-pressed to identify a single section that does not evoke some separate series. I fear Mage’s Blood is a far cry from original, but that isn’t the slight it might be given how neatly these threads interweave… how naturally these disparate narratives sit side by side.
In its execution rather than its conception, then, Mage’s Blood impresses. Hair’s prose proves potent, and despite featuring some occasionally wearisome worldbuilding, a fair few awkward infodumps and simplistic depictions of several sensitive subjects, he pulls off a complex plot, and paces it perfectly, such that some 700 pages later you’ll be rearing to keep reading.
For all that, though, what I most adored about Mage’s Blood was its unflinching focus on character, particularly as regards Meiros and Ramita, and Ramita and Kazim. The incremental evolution of these strained relationships over the course of the first of The Moontide Quartet’s four volumes is as emotional as it is surprising. By the conclusion, these three are completely different people, and in the interim, Hair handles their development very well.
There’s a lot to Mage’s Blood: a whole lot to like about it, and a little, admittedly, that seems derivative, or simply ill-fitting, but overall, it makes for an outstanding start to a series which promises to recall epic fantasy’s finest. In more ways than one, this book could be huge—an honour I dare say David Hair deserves.