I'm a sucker for many, many things: wizard schools, arranged marriages where they learn to love one another, business thrillers, the list goes on. Another? High fantasy worlds where the magic isn't important.
I have a lot of respect for authors that take the complete freedom of an imaginary world - where the very physics and cosmology can be arranged at their very whim - ... and then write stories that really have nothing to do with any of that. Books that clearly have elaborate, intricate world-building, but doesn't make that the 'point' of the book.
In the case of Dead Letter, Descovich ticks this box and then some. It begins in a fairly conventional way: Kettna is a novice in the school of wizardry. She's clearly talented - but it becomes rapidly clear that she's doing a lot with a little; her raw power is unimpressive, but her intellect and study have taken her far. She's also got a past - her parents are both powerful wizards: her mother is the Archmagus. Plus, her boyfriend has been expelled, a result of a magical scandal that may or may not be Kettna's fault in the first place...
Adding insult to, well, insult - Kettna is transferred. Despite her young age and lack of magical battle skillz, she's ordered into the bustling city of Calimska to serve alongside the city guard. Initially, Kettna thinks that her mom is pawning her with, well, work experience. But she rapidly learns that she's the centrepiece of a vast and complex game. As the guard's new Inspector, she's expected to be an impartial investigator into some of the city's most troublesome - and politically-charged - crimes.
Armed only with her middling talent, her impressive wits, and a sulky bodyguard, Kettna plows forward: digging up some of the city's most forbidding secrets - including her own.
Kettna's unimpressive magical skill means that Dead Letter reads as much like a crime novel than a fantasy novel. Epic fantasy atmosphere is all around us: dragons, legacies, Archmagi (Archmaguses? Archmageese?) - plus a slightly stilted, quasi-archaic way of speaking that serves as a sort of linguistic cue. But Kettna goes a-questin' by interviewing, studying clues, re-interviewing, drawing conclusions, and occasionally chasing after people on foot.
For those looking for more traditional epic elements, there's a - much smaller - secondary POV, Elrin. Like Kettna, Elrin is the child of all-powerful legendary heroes. But unlike Kettna, Elrin's ... a little more perfect. He takes care of his aged mum, he's working shifts as a scullery hand, as well as an informal street-runner, he says no to anything dishonest (refuses attractive women, won't ever peek at his messages), he can naturally peer through illusions, and he spends all his spare time reading and studying, because, you know. Because. While Kettna is undoubtedly the hero of this narrative, Elrin is a more conventional protagonist, prologuing about in the background. He makes Kettna - who is juggling her flaws and weaknesses - all the more interesting by contrast.
[Dead Letter is the prequel to a novel called Dragon Choir. Although a few cues to the meta-plot are present, Dead Letter is a neatly composed standalone. If anything, the only thing that doesn't stand alone is Elrin - who is clearly signposted for epicky epicness, and he never gets the chance to achieve it here.]
For fans of Lynn Abbey's The Brazen Gambit, Chet Williamson's Murder in Cormyr, maybe even Gary Gygax's Anubis Murders. Low magic mysteries set in high-magic worlds.
So let's get down and dungeony...
Fighter (Entertainment!): Dead Letter isn't action-packed in the conventional sense, it takes a more low-key approach. There's some spell-slinging, and an explosion or two, but, honestly - those aren't really the book's strengths. The book keeps the reader's attention by acting like a mystery instead: teasing information, introducing twists, adding hooks to pull the reader from one bit to the next. Thematically, it is a book that prides itself on intellect versus brawn, and that plays out on the pages as well - it tries to position its core mystery as a logic puzzle to be solved. Level 8.
Magic-User (World-Building!): The city of Calimska is excellently detailed and, quite clearly, a platform for adventure. The complexities of the guild system and the magical training, both core to the plot, are both explained without undue infodumping. There's also a lot going on with international rivalries, epic-level adventurers, and draconic apocalypses... but none of these are explained any more than they need to be to keep the plot going. If anything, I appreciate the restraint. The spellcasting system is game-y: down to the named and italicised spells, each with their mana and component requirements. But it is, again, presented as naturally as possible. Level 12.
Cleric (Characters!): The major point of view is Kettna. She's a well-balanced character - we've got the impressive lineage, the wizarding school, the ferocious intellect, the tragic love affair... and then a brutal, undermining flaw. And that's what makes her interesting: the sense that she's, as the Brits say, 'busking it'. At any moment someone will see through her, and discover she's not as bright as she seems, her parents aren't supporting her and, oh god, she's actually a pretty crappy wizard, who has to cheat to cast spells. That fallibility makes her human, and endearing. I did, however, struggle a tiny bit with her voice, which was often a little too strained and, as noted above, 'quasi-archaic'. By contrast, Elrin's a bit washed out. He's also the child of super-famous people but, inexplicably, lives in poverty. He's good-hearted, self-sacrificing, spends his free time self-improving and helping little old ladies cross the street. There's not much interesting about him: his weaknesses are wholly due to his circumstances, not his character. Level 12.
Thief (Surprises!): For a fantasy, this is a good mystery. And for a mystery, this is a good fantasy. That's convoluted, so let's pick it apart a bit. As a fantasy, there's something surprising and enjoyable about the fact that our protagonist is unconventional. She's smart, not strong, and, rather than hidden strengths of arcane power, she's the weak link in her family bloodline. She's puzzling things out, not blowing them up (mostly). As a mystery, it does a good job bringing to life a secondary world, introducing its components (including the supernatural) and weaving them into the plot, without making them distractions. Magic is definitely there, and definitely magic, but it never undermines the logic-based problem solving.
That said... it isn't a particularly mysterious mystery, and it was pretty straightforward (I thought, at least) to pick out all the major twists and whodunnits. Nor is it a particularly fantastic fantasy - although I liked the 'low epic' style of it, there is something a little frustrating around the lack of conclusion. Which is to say, Dead Letter dips into both genres, but I'm not sure it has perfected either. Level 8.
Something else (Whatever!): Anyone remember the Kensai class? First appeared in Oriental Adventures. One of my favourites, despite being - well, almost completely unplayable. A super-focused fighter type, the Kensai got all sorts of cute bonuses, but couldn't use magical weapons or wear armor. Basically meaning they would be cut down by anyone looking at them funny. Also, in a particularly annoying quirk - they had to practice 2 hours/day. If they didn't, they couldn't level. Which is a real pain in the ass if you're, say, crawling a damn dungeon. ANYWAY, metaphor, innit? I like how Dead Letter has a very interesting, very magical world, but engages with it - both in plot and character - non-magically. The crime fusion might not work perfectly, but it is a damn good try. Level 10.
Total party levels: 50