The Daemon Prism by Carol Berg
The Daemon Prism by Carol Berg (Roc, 2012) is the final volume in the Collegia Magica trilogy and continues some two years after the events in The Soul Mirror with Anne de Vernase still working with Dante to learn how to control her own magical abilities. This is not going as well as it should so, as in the way of all romantic novels, our couple must separate. Yes, it’s that old trick, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” used to mug us before the story has a chance to get going. This leaves the now blind Dante at a loose end and ties Anne up with her worries when she gets back home. Into this convenient lull comes an old soldier with a dream. This proves the trigger to bring Dante’s interests to a focus on what looks to be a form of magical trap, yet one that might just enable him to recover his sight if he manages the situation properly. Since we see all this from Dante’s point of view, the ambivalence of how he should react to this is nicely caught. When a letter comes from his long-estranged brother, Andero, requesting his return to his village where his father is dying, the jaws of the trap begin to close.
Although Dante does take the basic precaution of asking Illario for help, his departure is reckless. Worse, on the way, he discovers a faction of the Temple are out to arrest him. Except there seem to be equally powerful forces offering some level of protection. It’s all confusing as he finally makes it to his village alone having lost Illario on the way, perhaps dead, and his loyal servant sent to warn Anne of danger. This leaves Dante to bond with his brother and, when Temple men are spotted on the trail into the village, they make a run for it. Meanwhile Anne finds the loyal servant’s dead body and assumes the worst. When she’s approached by the leader of the Temple faction out to capture Dante, she sends him away and immediately takes off after Dante.
Although all this is perfectly competent and hits all the right notes in maintaining Dante’s harassment across unfriendly terrain, there’s a slightly mechanical feel to it all. In part, this is because Dante is rather better as a character to observe in the third person rather than as a monologuing point of view. Frankly I think him better when he’s enigmatic. When you actually see the world from his more elevated magical perspective, it makes everything rather more prosaic. He mostly expects his magic to work and, when he’s not feeling guilty or demoralised, it does. In the first two books, when we have to watch him glower and agonise over who-knows-what, the eventual grudging use of some magic seems all the more impressive. The only feature that saves this book from being completely formulaic is the introduction of Andero as the brother. This is an interesting character who accepts a difficult situation and makes the best of it, actually sacrificing himself at one point to allow his brother to move forward on the quest. He’s a calming presence when all about him seems chaotic.
We then get into a long discussion of what the function of the titular prism might be and how magic first came into the world. Although it’s all quite clever when you look back on it and see the construction of this world and the explanation for how the magic works, it’s actually quite heavy going in the telling. I’m not taking anything away from the obvious care lavished on creating the detailed history and fitting past and present together to produce the climactic battle, but this book would have been immeasurably improved by the subtraction of at least fifty pages. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you want to see how it all turns out but, as might be a safe assumption in all books of a romantic nature, the final cliché is likely to be amor vincit omnia, i.e. Anne saves her man (yet again). Looking back at the trilogy, The Daemon Prism represents a reasonable conclusion with all the obvious loose ends tied up. Indeed, were she so minded, there’s at least one more book left to tell if the publisher chooses to cross Carol Berg’s hand with the appropriate amount of silver. So long as we can see it through Anne’s eyes, it might be sufficiently interesting to continue the story.
As an afterthought, the artwork by Gordon Crabb is particularly wimpy and shows our hero Dante as entirely too nice and not at all as someone who might be mistaken for a real demon. Anyone innocently picking this up might mistake the book as romantic fiction rather than fantasy.