Top 10 Powerless Heroes
Underground Reading: 13 French Street

Underground Reading: The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller

The flyleaf page of Karen Miller's The Innocent Mage has one of those action-packed excerpts on it, to reel in any interested browsers. It reads:

"Without thinking, Asher jumped into the path of the frightened horse. A lifetime of sailing boats in untamed weather had honed his reflexes and made him indifferent to danger. Catching those flapping reins was just like laying hold of a loose halyard in high winds; battling the beasts to a standstill not much harder than wrestling with a net-load of fish reluctant to die."

As a word of warning, this particular formula is repeated endlessly throughout the book.

Innocent MageOur hero's childhood as a fisherman proves the gateway to court etiquette, public speaking, an instinctive knowledge of the justice system, javelin-throwing and, ironically, horseback riding (two chapters after the sequence above, Miller points out that Asher was actually pretty bad with horses - at least, until he put his bait-hooking mind to it). Ms Miller gets some credit for avoiding the 'The Prophecy Says You're Suddenly Special' trope, but only until she starts laboring the 'my fishing skills taught me...' (javelins/etiquette/calculus) point.

Appropriately, the only skill that Asher has yet to learn through the successful application of his fishing talents is the practice of magic. That, however, is more to do with the fact that Asher has nothing at all to do with magic in this book. Presumably, in the sequel, The Awakened Mage, Asher learns that moving things with his mind really isn't all that different from gutting a tuna.

Asher is surrounded by a cast of characters that run the gamut of high fantasy stereotypes. Upon his arrival in the Big City (hoping to convert his mastery of the maritime world into something more profitable, like hedge fund management), Asher immediately befriends the Royal Outcast Who Can't Inherit and the Stableman With a Heart of Gold. These two help keep Asher on the straight and narrow (of plot progression) - between a cryptic and uninteresting Prophecy and Asher's handy use of fish-inspired metaphors to solve local political problems - our young hero is clearly destined for greatness.

A third friend, Dathne, has flaws uniquely her own. Confusingly, as everything in this book pretty much rolls on the treadmill of plot, she initially avoids the pitfalls of stereotype. (Although Bookseller that Secretly Practices Forbidden But Benevolent Magic isn't really pushing any creative boundaries.) However, as the book progresses, her role becomes clear. 

Conflicted outsider, escaping to books? Burden to bear? The cleverest person in the room? Finding it difficult to love? "Dathne" soon unmasks and is revealed as a terrifying Mary Sue. Although Asher finds Mary Sue unattractive initially (scared off her by ferocious intellect, in fact), this soon changes. While Mary Sue is torn by her duty to the inexplicably menacing Prophecy, she's also drawn to Asher (presumably he's an undisputed master of the rod as well).

There are problems on a larger level as well. The simplistic and uninteresting kingdom of Lur is populated by two species. The tall, graceful, mystical Doranen, or "Elves", and the nature-respecting, blue-collar, hard-drinking, honest Olkenen, or "Australians". The former write in mystical, Tolkienistic sigils and are fleeing the land of the Morg (in no way like "Mordor"). The latter keep sensible heads on their shoulders and a few practice a druidic, healing magic (or "Reiki"). Unsurprisingly, the key conflict of the story takes place when Elrond refuses to return his surfboard rental.

Inexplicably, this book is selling like beer to a backpacker. Given the flood of great, modern fantasy currently hitting the shelves, I find this both perplexing and depressing. If planes had windows that opened, I never would have finished this book.