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The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg

The marketers are being somewhat provocative by heavily promoting this book as about “. . .a Kingdom on the verge of a grand renaissance, where natural science has supplanted failing sorcery. . .” In our human history, this seems to be rolling up some four or five centuries of struggle in a single sequence of events intended to be a mere trilogy. One of the most interesting stages in the development of any society is when it’s on the cusp between an old order and the new. Quite what we should call this process is not clear. Over time, the early demarcation lines can be between rural and urban, barbarism and civilisation. When changing from one paradigm to the next, we may get a renaissance where the “people” reform their worldview. This is not linear for, as the German concept Weltanschauung explains, we tell ourselves complex stories about the world we inhabit, with different elements of the discourse manipulated for political reasons with varying degrees of success during the period of change.

It should be said this notion of a renaissance or rebirth is not without controversy. Does it imply someone or something always has to die to make way for the new? If so, what is the morality of this displacement of the old? Then does the process affect everyone or is it only the intellectuals who perceive the changes while the masses continue to be downtrodden? And so on. If it is not to be considered a “renaissance”, should it be described as an Age of Enlightenment or of Reason where “rationality” rather than dogma becomes the basis on which to describe or comment on social institutions, responsibilities and practices? Well, not really. An Age of Reason occurs when a sufficient majority of opinion shapers are able to critique the power structure of the old age. Once they recognise the old can be replaced, the debate becomes what the new model will look like. In due course, the way in which this debate is conducted determines whether we move into a more rational age.

However, we should not judge a book by its cover. The author is not responsible for the ignorance of those who write the blurb. Indeed, since science has not supplanted sorcery inside the covers, it’s fairly obvious the blurb writer did not consider it necessary to read the book before deciding how to sell it.

What, then, of the text of The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg? Well, there’s good news and bad. We have an essentially mediaeval society in which an elite group has magical powers. Except, not only was a major war fought over the practice of this magic some two hundred years before our immediate action begins, but the actual ability to use it also seems to have been steadily declining ever since. Now two hundred years is a long time. If this society really was developing the kind of culture that could develop the prism to refract light, the telescope and microscope, and enough understanding of the eye to create spectacle lenses for improving vision, it would also be investigating its own past. The Renaissance in England and more generally in Europe was associated with Shakespeare, Boccaccio and other writers prepared to re-imagine recorded historical events for current “enlightenment” and entertainment. On page 460 a group of travelling players arrives to present a masque — not something more serious. Other than this, the development of this world has nothing to suggest any kind of pervasive intellectual culture. Whatever we have seems restricted to the court.

At large, there is an organised religion. The beliefs point to an oriental style of ancestor worship, but the practices and rituals seem to exist independently of the system permitting practical magic. This is genuinely strange. If, over centuries, a group of people were obviously able to wield powerful supernatural powers, this would have permeated the society. Out of self-defence, people would have allied themselves with the various families, hoping their loyalty would be rewarded with better crops, good health and any other perks a magician might bestow. Yet there is no evidence of this.

Indeed, with our hero a librarian, there is nothing to suggest any real interest in history at all. All that can be said of the Collegia de Magica de Seravain where he works is that it is an institution gracefully slipping into impotent irrelevance. There seems no interest or alarm that the ability to continue the magical traditions of the centuries is in decline. Apart from a policing function to prevent the more dangerous practices, the leaders seem content with an increasingly marginalised role. This is completely incredible. Old and powerful organisations do not simply give up their power and walk quietly into the night. They fight to preserve their influence. Yet there is nothing in this story to suggest that either the organisation responsible for maintaining the religion or the magicians union see any threat in the emergence of rationalism. Everyone seems to be happily coexisting as the benign King gently steers his people away from old superstitions and into a new age. Except, presumably, the trilogy will develop an explanation of the broader context for the current troubles that will show the old families who fought the war are still the real power brokers and, for their own purposes, want to destabilise the kingdom before it goes to far towards rationalism. I wait with interest to see whether Ms Berg manages to rescue herself from the pit she seems to have been digging for herself.

But, if you put aside the structural problems of the world Ms Berg has been building, the actual mystery element of the novel is genuinely entertaining. Although it has elements that are somewhat contrived, the interplay between the three tasked to investigate an attack upon the King and the disappearance of a key noble who was initially charged with the investigation make the journey through the pages enjoyable. The most interesting is the maverick magician our hero picks up to infiltrate the court. The underestimated fop and the witless librarian are not uncommon in “detective” fiction. A powerful mage with a chip on his shoulder and his own agenda is a pleasant change. Through their mutual lack of respect, they manage to provoke each other into insights about what may really be happening. At the end, we have the immediate crimes solved and everything now poised for The Soul Mirror due in 2011.

It’s always difficult with a first person narrative to build in significant exposition to explain what would be self-evident to the narrator. Thus, we must perforce leave the small mountain of questions about the world to be explained in the remaining two books. Which leaves me recommending the book. I was caught up in the story of the investigation which has enough intellectual credibility and have already ordered my copy of the next in the series.

For other reviews of books by Carol Berg, see:
Dust and Light
Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone.
The second and third books in the Collegia Magica trilogy are The Soul Mirror and The Daemon Prism.

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  1. August 8, 2014 at 11:47 pm

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