One of the most commonly addressed themes in fantasy fiction is that of identity. By tradition, this is the pig boy/High King. He may start out swilling the livestock, but by the time book five rolls around, Timmy has harnessed the power of the All-Flambé, married the Imperial Princess and drawn the legendary Dragonsword. He now knows who was he was all along: super-special!
In The Sentinel Mage, author Emily Gee uses the freedom of the fantasy setting to explore the concept of identity in unusual and, potentially, quite daring ways. After writing two well-received stand-alones, The Sentinel Mage is the start of her first trilogy. Ms. Gee also uses the added space and breathing room of the series format to stretch her legs and set up some intriguing characters.
The trilogy’s set-up is fairly straightforward, and fantasy-conversant readers will quickly pick up the tropes involved with a minimum of fuss.
The land of the Seven Kingdoms has been at (uneasy) peace for some time. Even the ambitions of Osgaard, the westernmost kingdom, have been temporarily sated after their conquest of some outlying islands. However, the status quo is shattered by the onset of a long-prophesied curse. Starting at the easternmost edge of the Kingdoms and extending day by day to cover the land, people are being turned into Feral-Zombie-Animals.
The one man that can stop the Feral-Zombie-Animal plague is Prince Harkeld of Osgaard. He combines the royal bloodline with the forbidden blood of mages. By racing around and placing his royal hand (and dripping some royal blood) on three magical “anchor stones”, he can stop the curse. Unfortunately, as his enemies soon realize, neither Harkeld’s hand nor his blood need to be attached to the rest of his body for these conditions to be fulfilled.
This is, as noted above, a fairly conventional fantasy story: a magical scavenger hunt featuring the child of prophecy. Where Ms. Gee starts to make things interesting is with her two main characters: Harkeld and Innis, his shapeshifting magical bodyguard.
Prince Harkeld, for example, is born to wealth and privilege. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth - he had a golden one, studded with gemstones and carried by a half-dozen slaves. More critical to his character, Harkeld has spent his entire life knowing that magic is wrong. This isn’t just the conviction of his Evil King father, this is a commonly-held “truth” across all seven of the Kingdoms. Not only is Harkeld forced to travel in the company of witches, but also he has to accept that he is, in terms of heredity, one of them.
The “witches” are the titular Sentinel Mages, a group of magical experts that have trained their entire lives for this very moment. They’re a hardy lot, but the physical danger facing them is nothing compared to the emotional strain of escorting around Harkeld. He may be the object of prophecy and therefore the most important man in the world, but he also loathes them. Harkeld won’t eat the witches’ food, share their tents or listen to their advice. Considering the vital role that he needs to play, this is unacceptable. The Mages’ response? Have one of their own number shapeshift into an “ordinary” person and sneakily protect Harkeld by offering him someone that he can trust.
Awkwardly, the best shapeshifter in the party is Innis, a young mage with great strength but little experience. Although set up in the great tradition of Shakespearean comedies – dressed as a man, falling for her new pal – Innis has worse problems to deal with than star-crossed romance. Taking any form for too long means that a mage can slip into said form permanently. Added to that danger is the temptation inherent in her borrowed shape: Innis is a shy young woman that gets to play at being a confident young man. She finds the strength and swagger of her new role very seductive, not to mention its proximity to a handsome young prince that otherwise finds her repulsive.
A few of the other characters also step on to the main stage on occasion. Karel is the bodyguard to Prince Harkeld’s half-sister, a princess of Osgaard. His own identity is very firmly established: as a bondsman he’s essentially a slave, as an Islander, he’s the lowest social caste in his society. However, he acts as a strong moral focus for the book’s secondary storyline. Petrus, another of the Sentinel Mages, is also a compelling minor character. He’s one of Innis’ classmates and, in a way, serves as the baseline “intended” for her. Were the status quo maintained, they would be an excellent pair. But The Sentinel Mage seems to be all about upsetting the status quo.
In The Sentinel Mage, Emily Gee has filled an unexceptional world with exceptional characters. The plot is conventional, and whenever the author pushes it forward, the book stumbles. However, in the gaps between the plot, the book’s strength shines through. With her rich extended cast, especially the book’s two leads, Ms. Gee has set up characters and conflicts that have extraordinary potential. With The Cursed Kingdoms trilogy, she has created the opportunity to explore identity issues in a way that conventional literature never could. I am eager to see if this comes to fruition.
[This review first appeared in Hub Magazine, Issue 134, the weekly short fiction ezine.]